Tuesday, January 31, 2012

City of Echoes: The Continuing Evolution of Post-Metal

Pelican, the premier post-metal band

One of the most amazing things about metal music is how it has continued to evolve.  To me, nothing has been more intriguing than the development of post-metal.  Post-metal describes a sub-genre of extreme metal which, similar to the way post-rock leaves many of the standard tropes of rock behind, uses metal as a jumping off point for more unusual explorations of this variation that (much like post-rock itself) typically involves minimal vocals, a grander, more neo-classical compositional structure, and an emphasis on sonic textures over traditional riffs and chords, atypical instrumentation, etc. 

I’ve talked in two recent posts about the rise of crossover/thrash and grindcore/death metal from the ashes of the hardcore scenes in England and America.  Post-metal can trace its lineage to grindcore through the career of one fascinating musician, Justin Broadrick.  Broadrick’s musical career began when he formed his first band Final in the early 80’s when he was just 13; originally conceived as a punk band, Final used a drum machine instead of a live drummer (much like Nine Inch Nails would a decade or so later) and was involved in the nascent industrial scene. 

In 1985 Broadrick became the guitarist for Napalm Death and recorded side one of their now-legendary 1987 grindcore classic Scum with them.  Broadrick’s massive wall-of-sound guitar noise was a critical element to the emerging genre of grindcore and was a bridge between the emerging hardcore punk, extreme metal and industrial genres.

In 1986 he joined as a drummer the industrial bands Fall of Because and Head of David and edged even closer to a fusion of punk, metal and industrial.  The Fall of Because compilation Life Is Easy was released in 1989 (and re-released by Invisible Records in 1999 and is available on iTunes) and showcases this musical direction.  The music sounds like an update of Killing Joke; other bands like Swans are clear influences, while in America bands like Big Black were pursuing similar sonic avenues.   It has elements of punk and the wall-of-feedback-and-distortion element that the Jesus and Mary Chain developed, and which the indie shoegazer movement would make even more famous.  It also has a sludgy, Flipper element that would also find popularity in another genre, grunge, a few years later; the tempo of much of Broadrick’s post-Napalm Death music tends to be very slow and grinding rather than blisteringly fast.  “Grind”, “Survive”, and “Merciless” are particular standouts.

In 1988 Broadrick evolved Fall of Because into Godflesh with Because bassist G.C. Green.  Godflesh continued on in this same punk/metal/industrial vein.  1988’s Godflesh is like a Venn diagram between the feedback whine of indie shoegazer and the rumble and blast of grindcore, particularly on songs like “Godhead” and “Spinebender”.   The influence on bands like Ministry and other late 80's/early 90’s industrial bands is obvious.  1989’s Streetcleaner was an even more cogent musical statement, boasting cleaner production and an even better defined ethic.  The songs here lumber and lurch like proto-Sabbath sludge; guitars clang and howl; Broadrick’s vocals are deep throated growls.  My favorite song is “Christbait Rising”, with its rat-a-tat drum machine and droning, feedback-drenched blitz.  This music is definitely heavy enough to appeal to metalers able to step out of the traditional structure of heavy metal, people who would form bands like White Zombie.  The industrial element comes more directly from the drum machine and staccato rhythms and less from overt synth or sampling elements.

My personal favorite album by Godflesh is 1994’s album Selfless; to me the production here is top notch; the guitars (and Green’s bass) pulse and roar.  I like “Xnoybis” and “Anything is Mine”; the lurching, pulsing, grinding rhythm of the latter reminds me almost of early Soundgarden or Nirvana it’s so sludgy.  The high, repeating feedback of the former is also really memorable to me, and really makes me think again of Killing Joke, a high compliment indeed from me.  This album also has one of my favorite album covers of all time, a scanning electron image of a cultured fibroblast growing on a computer chip, a fitting image for such organic-yet-electronic music.

Another contributor to Godflesh was Robert Hampson, who was another interesting player in the evolution of metal’s evolution toward industrial and electronica.  Hampson had been guitarist and a main architect of the band Loop.  Loop sat much closer to the art/damage sound of Sonic Youth and Naked Raygun than they did to Napalm Death, but Hampson brought these other, more trance-like elements into the Godflesh mix.  Their 1987 album Heaven’s End captures this hypnotic feel, particularly on songs like “Straight to your Heart”, which sounds like something off Sonic Youth’s Evol album, and the title track, which hearkens back to the Velvet Underground’s early drone experimentation (only with looped samples).    They continued in this vibe on 1988’s Fade Out; I have “This is Where You End” and the title track, which have that repetitive feedback drone that can be found in everything from the art/damage of Sonic Youth to the reverb-filled debut of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club to the shoegaze of My Bloody Valentine and Blur.  This is actually really great music that I don’t listen to often enough.

Loop’s swan song was 1990’s A Gilded Eternity.  I have four songs that I like from this one, all of which fit that Sonic-Youth-meets-Blur vibe.  “Arc-Lite” has the echoey vocals of 60’s obscurities like the Godz and a catchily repetitive riff.  “Vapour” is another dead-on Sonic Youth carbon copy; honestly, if I snuck this into your electronic copy of Bad Moon Rising, you probably wouldn’t even notice.  Aside from the fey vocals, “The Nail Will Burn” sounds the most like Godflesh and you can see why Broadrick asked him to join.  “Blood” is quieter, with a dominant repeating drum line and a softly feeding back guitar and occasional chimes of guitar riff and other sampled sonics. 

Broadrick also collaborated in side projects with Kevin Martin, another drone experimentalist who had formed the band Ice in the mid-90’s.  Ice was not metal at all, but traded heavily in low key, jazz-influenced ambient electronica.  I have the song “Out of Focus” (not a cover of Blue Cheer’s famous proto-metal barn burner) from the album Under the Skin. I like the skittery, free jazz drums and pulsing electronic skirls on this song.  As mentioned, this is far from metal, but still has an occasional ominous chug that tethers it to industrial music.  It often sounds like an super-extended chillwave/dub remix of Godflesh’s more accessible stuff.

Broadrick broke up Godflesh after suffering a nervous breakedown in 2002 (though they reformed in 2010) and in 2004 formed the industrial metal/post-metal band Jesu.  Jesu is often described as post-metal; here Broadrick has crisply delineated the minor key electronic elements and guitar chug.  The vocals are not the shouted growls of Godflesh but soft and optimistic, sounding like something off an ambient/trance album.  “Bright Eyes” off 2007’s Conqueror  sounds like a cross between Vangelis and the tight thrumming guitar chug of Soundgarden’s “Beyond the Wheel”; similarly, “Stanlow” has a rough Godflesh-like chug to the guitars but again the electronic elements here sound like something off a science fiction movie soundtrack. 

My favorite work is from their most recent album, 2011’s Ascension.  “Birth Day” is magnificent ambient metal, there’s really no other word for it.  The electronic elements on “Broken Home” almost sound like a harpsichord or something and the guitar chug is wonderful here too.  “Small Wonder” is more fuzzed-out and the electronic elements are submerged more into the overall feedback drone and guitar chug.  The song occasionally resolves into a gently picked (i.e., not heavily amplified and feeding back) guitar and Broadrick’s gentle vocals.  This might be the best Jesu song to me.  The title track continues this more introspective and peaceful vibe and is really close to the post-rock of Mogwai or Bark Psychosis, just repeating elements and intersecting lines and lots of majestic, introspective, hazy beauty.  I hope Broadrick continues to do his Jesu work, he’s truly captured a unique and beautifully optimistic take on music in general and metal in particular. 

In the late 90’s and into the 21st century other bands have attempted to infuse extreme metal with a similarly orchestrated and majestic feel, focusing more on textures than on bludgeoning riffs or extreme speed.  An early pioneer was the Oakland band Neurosis, who evolved from hardcore punk to death metal to a band mixing elements of death metal with ambient and electronic elements much like Broadrick has done throughout his career.  I have not downloaded much by this band but definitely will check them out.

Isis is another early post-metal pioneer, and guitarist Aaron Turner also formed Hydra Head Records, a label which specializes in extreme metal, everything from the grindcore of Agoraphobic Nosebleed to the post-metal of Jesu.  Isis (who also write their name ISIS) emerged from a more straightforward hardcore and death metal sonic place (as can be seen by the songs on their debut album, 2000’s Celestial).  My favorite downloads thus far (like with Neurosis, I’ve only just begun exploring) are “So Did We”, a moody, introspective piece off their third album, 2006’s Panopticon, that also occasionally rumbles and roars, and sports gravelly, growled vocals used sparingly between long crisp instrumental passages.  “Backlit” also references post-rock bands like Slint but it builds like classic Godflesh to soaring pinnacles of noisy splendor interspersed with airy ambient waves.  My other two favorites are “Wrists of Kings” off 2006’s In the Absence of Truth; this reminds me a lot of the contemporary post-rock I’ve been downloading in droves recently, specifically stuff by Califone, Clog’s, Rachel’s, and Diagonah, and only reaches the sturm and drang of metal sporadically.  “Dulcinea” off this album is similar, often sounding as moody and introspective as early Cure.  As with Neurosis, I’m still on the ascending limb of my collection curve with respect to this band but eventually builds in power and intensity.

My current favorite post-metal band by a large margin is Chicago’s Pelican.  Formed in 2001, they released their first album, Australasia, in 2003.  I absolutely love the giant, soaring, majestic guitar landscapes constructed by this band; their sound is so optimistic and beautiful I’m almost always sucked into their magnificence.  I honestly cannot recommend this band enough; they take the same joyous, hopeful sound approach of Jesu, but do not taint it with vocals:  nearly all of their songs are instrumentals of unparalleled splendor.  I love the short (for them) song “GW” off this first album but it’s easy to get lost in any of their wordless anthems.  Some, like “Drought” or “Angel Tears” sit closer to the dirgy drone of Godflesh.

 2005’s Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw is another triumph.  “Last Day of Winter” almost sounds like “Kashmir” by Zep in terms of its lurching yet shimmering texture, but occasionally slows to even more spare and introspective moments of percussion alternating with bass chords; the shimmering middle sounds a lot like Jesu’s work on Ascension.  “Sirius” clangs and burbles to start but then settles into a twangy thrum of guitar and bass before reaching a loud, crashing crescendo. 

My favorite album by them is 2007’s City of Echoes.  “Bliss in Concrete” starts with some downbeat riffing that suggests Godflesh or even arguably John McGeoch’s strange shimmering guitar work for Siouxsie and the Banshees (a strange comparison I know for a metal band).   The title track is a blow-you-away standout song that never fails to amaze me; the balance between the guitar picking and the huge minor chord riffing is just incredible, and they even slip in a little Metallica-like superfast chugging, and I defy anyone to find a song with a more uplifting tone.  I am absolutely nuts about this song right now; it is VERY high in my frequently changing personal top ten list.  “Spaceship Broken-Parts Needed” starts with a repeating piano note-like sound and floats gossamer-like initially like an Angela Badalamenti composition but builds to some majestic riffage that still retains the evanescence of the intro even as it ramps up the power.  The drumming here is particularly outstanding; by the four and a half minute mark this song is as majestic as “City of Echoes”.  “Winds with Hands” starts off with acoustic strumming that sounds like Nick Drake; if the strumming weren’t so vigorous this would also sound like late era Talk Talk, the first post-anything band.  Ironically, the emotional tension is the highest for any Pelican song I can think of, which shows how capable this band is.  “A Delicate Sense of Balance” starts ominously but again like “Parts Needed” builds from a basic drum beat and softly strummed electric guitars to a huge, shimmering apex. 

“Pulse”, off their 2009 untitled EP, shows that Pelican can pull off a soaring Jesu drone vibe with utter perfection; like much of Jesu’s work, this sounds like a cut from a particularly enjoyable science fiction movie.  Their most recent album, 2009’s What We All Come to Need is another triumph.  “Glimmer” has a great noodling background solo that reminds me of Greg Ginn’s work with late era Black Flag.  The title track is my second most favorite Pelican song next to “City of Echoes”, another hopeful instrumental anthem that just takes you along like a briskly flowing river to new vistas of beauty. 

Two other post-metal bands I’ve just begun exploring are Russian Circles and Callisto.  Russian Circles is a Chicago trio who, like ISIS and Pelican, traffic in metallic landscapes that build in shimmering intensity and incorporate ambient, post-rock, and post-punk aspects of instrumentation.  The two Russian Circles songs I have now are “Verses” off 2008’s Station and “Fathom” off 2009’s Geneva.  I love the spacey electronica of the former and the chunky post-rock feel of the second (and its sustain ending).  Much harder is “309” off their most recent album, 2011’s Empros, while “Mladek” and “Atackla” off this same album are uplifting but still retain a rough fuzz to the bass that offsets their sweetness.  Finally, “Praise Be Man” reminds me of early Chemical Brothers in its eerie ambience and repeating elements, sort of like a metal “Where Do I Begin”.  I like this band a lot, they’re probably my second fave next to Pelican. 

Finland’s Callisto makes similarly ambitious music.  The one song I have by them right now is “A Close Encounter” off 2007’s Noir; it starts with a mellow guitar line and spacey synths but eventually meanders its way into a traditional black metal structure, complete with hoarse, growled vocals and crashing guitar chords before wandering back into soothing electronics and guitar notes.  “Wormwood” and “Fugitive” from this album are also good.  I haven’t downloaded anything from it yet, but 2009’s Providence continues their evolution in this direction and is also good.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Oh You Beautiful Child: English Glam Obscurities from the early 70's

Blackfoot Sue

A short while back I read David Thompson’s outstanding history of the British glam rock movement, “Children of the Revolution”.  Thompson is an author after my own heart; anyone who has glanced at this blog knows that I tend toward the, um, verbose and that I am extremely analytical when it comes to music.  In his book, Thompson gives a month-by-month catalog of every album, single, and TV appearance by glam artists through the early 70’s, as glam started from humble beginnings and became for a time the dominant musical paradigm in England.  This is just about as comprehensive and exhaustive as you can possibly get, and I greatly enjoyed his book.

Even more relevant to the topic of this blog, Thompson’s book is a treasure trove of extremely obscure British glam acts, few of which ever made even the tiniest splash on these shores.  Hell, if T. Rex and Bowie could barely manage to crack the U.S. charts, it’s pretty obvious none of the rest of these bands were going to be able to do so either.  I haven’t been able to track down all of the songs listed by Thompson but the few I have really intrigued me.

And none more than Alan Lee Shaw.  Shaw is a fascinating figure, another in a long line of really unique individuals who managed to weave their career through several musical movements.  Shaw originally befriended legendary 60’s psychedelic drummer Twink in the mid-70’s as Twink was working with former Pink Floyd burnout Syd Barrett in his post-Floyd band Stars.  Eventually Shaw and Twink formed the Rings in ’77 as punk exploded in England and released “I Wanna Be Free”, a bracing splash of Sham 69-esque ’77 punk.  But prior to this, he released a solo single titled “She Moans” that has to be heard to believed.  Starting out with a wild, almost frenetic blast of wah guitar, it then settles into a thundering protopunk rumble that eerily presages his later punk work.  According to Shaw himself, his image at this time was very glam, with lots of satin, but musically this has a harder edge than most teenybop glam of the time.  A fun song.  Shaw went on to form two other seminal English punk bands, the Maniacs and the Physicals, before joining the Damned in the 90’s and eventually Lords of the New Church.  “Chelsea ‘77”/”Ain’t No Legend” by the Maniacs are both on YouTube (as are “She Moans” and “I Wanna Be Free”); “Chelsea” a catchy piece of straight-ahead punk, with snotty, stuttering vocals that stride between Roger Daltrey and Johnny Rotten, while “Legend” is catchier, more pop punk musically.

Another oddity is the single “You Won’t Come” by Spunky Spider; clearly the glam penchant for sexually outrageous song titles and lyrics is in full flight here as well as on Shaw’s single.  The vocals sound very harsh, almost strident, even snarly at times, and the music is a weird chiming proto-60’s garage-y surge.  Not sure how this ever managed to be released, let alone chart.  The b-side, “Perchance” has more of a late 60’s heavy blues/psychedelia feel, lurching along on a plodding blues riff.

At the opposite end of the musical spectrum is “Trust In Dick” (there’s that cheeky English sex thing again) by the Winkies, a rollicking, feel-good song that sweeps you along.  The Winkies formed in 1973 but were really more of a pub rock band masquerading as a glam rock band.  In 1974 they came to the attention of Brian Eno; Eno had recently split from Roxy Music and was looking for a backing band for his tour supporting his first solo album, Here Come the Warm Jets.  Alas, Eno’s health problems ended the tour after just 5 dates and the Winkies and Eno parted company.  They went on to record their first album, but their interlude with Eno delayed it so that it wasn’t released until 1975 and was thus birthed into the downward slope of the glam scene.  The music is not necessarily glam in nature, being more of a melodic 70’s groove rock in nature.  “Trust In Dick” is supremely catchy, with a memorable chorus and rollicking music that evokes the Allman Brothers as much as anything.  This middle America sensibility finds its greatest flowering in their cover of “Long Song Comin’” by Bob Seger; lead singer Guy Stevens’ yowling vocals make him sound almost like an English Tom Petty, more soulful than glitter rock.  “Twilight Masquerade” starts with acoustic guitar and vocals that evince Neil Young.  “Davey’s Blowtorch” is another great bar burning rave-up that sounds a lot like early Mott the Hoople.    This was a great band that bridged the glam-pub rock divide but unfortunately never truly found an audience in either camp.

Equally catchy as “Trust In Dick” is “Standing In the Road” by Blackfoot Sue.  This is one of my absolute favorite forgotten English glam jems, a head shaking, foot stomping dance floor romp.  I can imagine this must have been HUGE in the glam discos in 1972!  “Sing, Don’t Speak”, the follow-up to “Standing In the Road”, is another great foot stomper that sounds like the platform stomp of Slade crossed with the catchy vocals of Sweet or the Rollers.  This band, formed in Birmingham in the early 70’s, only barely survived the glam era, breaking up in 1977, but “Standing in the Road” is as fun as they come and is a welcome addition to my iPod.

Bearded Lady’s “Rock Star” is another strange bird, with its almost Jewish folk music sounding chorus, building from a lightly strummed guitar intro.  Singer/guitarist Johnny Warman was the driving force behind this group, supposedly receiving accolades from Bowie himself, high praise indeed!  This one is worth checking out.

Iron Virgin was a Scottish glam band whose music snaked uneasily between the stomp of Slade and the big shouted group choruses of the Bay City Rollers.  “Rebels Rule”, which was their second single, released in 1974 showcases this interesting sound, and sounds like a cross between “Gudbye T’Jane” and “Ballroom Blitz”.  Their first single was a cover of “Jet” by Paul McCartney and Wings; what’s funny is that I always thought that song had a very glam sound to it.  IV’s version isn’t bad but doesn’t add anything particularly exciting to the original, and actually I love the rumbling bass on Paul’s version.  Their third single, “Shake That Fat” almost sounds like a joke, perhaps the missing Spinal Tap single between “Sex Farm Woman” and “Stonehenge”? A little strange lyrically but actually kind of a fun rip between glam and 70’s hard rock.  “Teenage Love Affair” is similarly harder rocking, with an almost Dolls-like groove. 

Another mysterious glam obscurity is Spiv, whose “Oh, You Beautiful Child” almost sounds like “Look What They’ve Done To My Song, Ma” as covered by the Crazy World of Arthur Brown.  Very very strange!  I can’t find much information on this band (person?) but this song is definitely one you should hear.

With its weird fuzzbox guitar and clanging keyboards, “Morning Bird” by the Damned—no, not THAT Damned—is a strange, well, bird.  The big, melodic, singalong chorus sounds like something the Beatles might have whomped together circa 1963—it’s even got that patented McCartney-Lennon “whoooo” (which they in turn stole from Little Richard) of songs like “I Saw Here Standing There”.  This is another weird but fun song and again seems like it was one of those get-everyone-on-the-dancefloor songs circa 1973 that makes me wish I’d been old enough to see/hear that happen then. 

“Make Me a Superman” by Stumpy has an almost lushness to it, with its hushed, sweet vocals and guitar harmonies (and despite its tinny production typical of the times).  Stumpy were a North Country band and this single was released in 1974.

Hewing closely to the Bay City Rollers formula was Portsmouth’s Hector, who dressed in bizarre overalls and striped shirts with matching striped knee high socks, and platform shoes; apparently they were trying for a Dennis the Menace look.  The sound was a pounding, crunchy pop, which can be heard in their single “Ain’t Got No Time”; the vocals are a mite warbly, almost chipmunky,  but the music is catchy.  Even better, primarily because its less trebly and more rocking, is “Bye Bye Bad Times”, which hews closer to “Ballroom Blitz” but with a smoother harmony on the chorus.  The lyrics have that bittersweet cry-in-your-beer nostalgia/wistfulness of Slade songs like “Summer Song” and “Heaven Knows”.  Their first single, “Wired Up” has a big buzzing guitar intro that reminds me of “Journey to the Center of the Mind” by the Amboy Dukes, and chirpy vocals like “Time” and some weird synth elements too. 

A great lost gem of the glam era was Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s aptly named Geordie (Geordie is English slang for someone from this particular region of England).  Geordie would retain a measure of fame for providing AC/DC with their replacement vocalist for Bon Scott, Brian Johnson.  I love “All Because of You”, which retains the arena stomp of classic Slade and is a catchy pop rock roller coaster.  1973’s “Electric Lady” is another standout, with its out-sized intro and catchy chorus, which builds to a big shout-along.  Johnson’s vocals are clearly recognizable even at this time, but also sound occasionally like Dan McCafferty of Nazareth’s.  A third song I like—none of this is on iTunes but tons of Geordie songs have been uploaded to YouTube—is “She’s a Lady”, which is a little slower, more rock-oriented (it actually doesn’t sound that far off of what Johnson would eventually do with the Brothers Young). 

Another band that achieved some subsequent fame were Arrows.  Formed by American Alan Merrill, Israeli born guitarist Jake Hooker, and British drummer Paul Varley, Arrows released several glam rock singles in the early 70’s.  “Toughen Up” is a nice hard slice of sweet powerpop influenced rock that hearkens back to the Faces and the Who; it even has a shuffle beat like “Magic Bus”.  “Touch Too Much” builds into an almost rockabilly rave-up—the rhythm is lifted straight from “Summertime Blues”--but its chorus is pure Bay City Rollers.  But they are best known for writing what would be Joan Jett’s first huge hit, “I Love Rock n’ Roll”, which they released in 1975.  Their version is rawer, rougher, closer to 60’s garage rock. 

Similarly, North London’s Hello were a Sweet-influenced teeny bop glam band.  They had several catchy songs, notably “Another School Day” (I love the feeding back guitar intro on this song) and a cover of the Exciter’s 1963 hit “Tell Him”, but they also achieved bigger fame when their song “New York Groove” was covered by Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley on his Kiss solo album. 

He never achieved quite the level of fame (or, thankfully, infamy) of Gary Glitter, but Alvin Stardust was cut from a similar cloth, an aging rocker who reinvented himself as a glam rock icon.  His 1973 single “My Coo Ca Choo” is a hoot though, sweet, crooned vocals over rockabilly backing with occasional acidic guitar solos.  I love this song; his chorus sounds very Elvis-like, kind of low and drawled and sexy. 

“Kick Your Boots Off” by Sisters has vocals that sound like Paul Stanley’s shrieky vocals on post-makeup metal Kiss songs like “Lick It Up”, but the music is stomping and catchy. 

Speaking of super-catchy is “Let’s Do It Again” by Crunch; this song is easily as memorable as anything put out by T. Rex, Slade, or the Sweet.  The huge drum-laden intro grabs you by the platform shoes and shoves you onto the dance floor.  Another terrific gem, as is “Turtle Dove” by the Rats, which is great, guitar-driven fun.

 A strange beast indeed are the inter-related bands Stavely Makepeace and Lieutenant Pigeon.  “Slippery Rock 70’s” by Makepeace is a strange instrumental, with a rollicking roadhouse piano and a curiously thrumming bass line; man, they sure knew how to make dance music back then!  Even weirder is “Moldy Old Dough” by Lieutenant Pigeon, another strange, plinky piano number with martial drums, a recorder solo, and gruff, atonally growled vocals.  VERY VERY strange!  And yet it was the second best selling single in England in 1972!!!  Hope they invested well . . .

1975’s “Neo City” by Colchester’s Plod is a raw blast of glam pop rock; I love the guitar here, very truly.  Songs like this show you how very near the Sex Pistols’ sound was to what was already out there already in England.

No, it’s not the MC5 song of the same name, but “Kick Out the Jams” by Tubthumper is another strange, mostly instrumental, fuzzed-out drum-and-guitar bash.  This sounds like a “jock jam” to me today, i.e., a song played to get a crowd ramped up.  Interesting.

Two very late entries into the glam field were 1977’s Big Wheels Turnin’” a teeny bopper glam singalong confection by Flame that not only postdates the whole glam movement (which had crashed and burned by late 1975) but sounds eerily like the “family group” teen pop of the Brady Kids, the Defrancos, and the Osmonds of the early 70’s.  Perhaps not too surprising—glam had a strong teenybop element, and indeed the Osmonds were one of the most popular groups in England in the mid 70’s.  The second weird post-glam glam song is “Madman” by Cuddly Toys.  Cuddly Toys started as controversially named punk band the Raped in 1977 but by 1978 had reverted to a very Ziggy Stardust influenced glam/new wave image and sound.  “Madman” is a curiosity:  it was a song written by David Bowie and Marc Bolan as part of a collaboration before the latter’s untimely death in a car wreck in 1977.  It sounds like it could be an out-take from Diamond Dogs or Hunky Dory. 

Most of these songs, and many others, have been collected into compilations like Velvet Tinmine and other so-called “junk shop glam” collections in England.  Not surprisingly, these compilations are as popular there as collections of AM 70’s American hits like Have a Nice Day put out by Rhino Records.  Just like Americans love to hear songs like “Seasons in the Sun” and “Afternoon Delight” because they remind them of childhoods spent in the 70’s, English people of a certain age (i.e., over 40) love to listen to these rare and wonderful gems, and for good reason.  Most of these songs were catchy, fun, well-crafted pop rock.  It’s great that there’s still an audience for this.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Whiplash: the Rise of Thrash


It isn’t often I get into a major heavy metal mood, but this year, perhaps as an antidote to the saccharine ubiquity of Christmas carols, I’ve found myself completely immersed in not just metal but the hardest of the hard, the early albums of the whole crossover/thrash movement.  It’s put me in a reflective mood about the beginnings of thrash and what a strange and alien beast it was to me at first.  As I’ve repeatedly asserted in this blog, punk and metal were anathema to one another to me and my friends in Southern California the early 80’s.  The divide between punk and metal was a deep one, and wasn’t just musical/cultural, it was economic and geographic in Southern California in the early 80’s.  Punk and new wave were the sounds of the wealthier beach communities, while heavy metal was the sound of the lower middle class inland kids who were bused to the better beach schools.  In the accelerated high school program I belonged to (where I was in turn bused to a much worse school near downtown Long Beach, CA, for part of the day before returning to my “home” high school) there was only one heavy metaler kid, a guy named Bill Adams.  My friends and I, even though we were dedicated new wavers, actually liked Bill a lot; he was funny and cool in the sense that he was comfortable enough in his own skin to be proud of his adherence to heavy metal music. 

(Of course, there weren’t many true punkers in my AP courses either; nearly all of the true punkers at either of the high schools I attended were socioeconomically even worse off than the lower middle class metal kids; most came from broken families and lived in cheap apartments in the fringe areas of Long Beach.  Of course, the major exception here was the fact that the three best looking, most gorgeous and lusted after girls at my high school were tall model types who were into punk.  I believe I’ve already mentioned in a previous blog my one brush with these girls, when I was drunk and my ride abandoned me at a high school party and the party got raided by the police and these three girls gave me a ride home and somehow knew where I lived, a fact that I found, and still find to this day, oddly arousing.)

There was a very small list of heavy metal songs it was acceptable to like.  “Mental Health” by Quiet Riot was one of them, perhaps because in the video for this song the person wearing the iconic mask in the concert footage looked more like a punker than a metaler.  Another acceptable song was “Panama” by Van Halen, again partly, perhaps, because of the video, which in this case was goofy and funny.  A third song that I think more people liked than would admit was “Photograph” by Def Leppard.  I certainly liked it, though I would never admit it; the guitar riff at the beginning was extremely catchy and the dual guitar attack throughout the song was really awesome. 

One thing about heavy metal that perhaps an outside observer like myself can appreciate almost more than a true fan is how exponentially it grew.   While it obviously had lots of antecedents, heavy metal burst forth as a strange new entity with Black Sabbath’s first album.  Many bands had been migrating toward a heavier, louder sound in the late 60’s, but nearly all of these bands (such as Cream, the Yardbirds, and Humble Pie) still were playing a heavy or amplified take on American blues.  Sabbath was the first band to break almost completely from this blues tradition, and to me this is the major hallmark of true heavy metal; it’s NOT simply louder blues, it comes from a completely different place sonically and particularly lyrically.  Specifically, the use of the tritone, the so-called “doom chord” or diabolica in musica, gave them more in common with medieval classical music than with blues.  In some ways their first album sounded more like Stravinsky and Hildegard of Bingen than John Lee Hooker or Muddy Waters.

Lyrically of course Sabbath introduced another innovation:  song lyrics that focused on dark and negative imagery, particularly war (“War Pigs”), negative emotions (“Paranoid”), and most particularly on evil and satanic concepts.  “Black Sabbath”, the first song on their debut album, was the first song to really baldly evoke Satanism and devil worship in popular music, a theme that Sabbath (and of course their many musical descendants) would return to often across their storied career.  It’s difficult to understand today how radical this was at the time; the 60’s had just ended in the paroxysm of Altamont and Manson, but most people were still floating along on the positive vibes of peace, love and flower power.  This is still one of my all-time favorite songs because it’s such a stark and extreme break sonically and lyrically from everything else of that time.  Sabbath had taken a giant step forward toward what would be heavy metal.

If Sabbath established the basic blueprint—music that was loud, heavy, and dark—Judas Priest codified it.  With the huge exception of “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming”, which was another quasi-acceptable heavy metal song among me and my friends in high school, I was never much of a Judas Priest fan.  But over the years as I’ve gone back and re-explored their canon I’ve come away ever more impressed at their influence on heavy metal.  Priest added three key ingredients to the Sabbath stew of volume, heaviness, and darkness. First, Priest was one of the first heavy metal bands to write songs that celebrated what would become the heavy metal lifestyle—songs about motorcycles and speed (“Heading Out to the Highway”), law breaking (“Breaking the Law”, duh), rebellion (“Hellbent for Leather”, “Living After Midnight”, “Running Wild”), and heavy metal itself (“Metal Gods”, “Rock Forever”).  Second, whereas, with notable exceptions such as “Paranoid”, Sabbath primarily mined a sonic landscape centered on slowness and sludginess, Priest was one of the first to add speed to the heavy metal repertoire, and furthermore added Rob Halford’s multi-octave, operatic range to the metal vocal palette as well.  And third and arguably most important, Rob Halford developed the whole look of heavy metal based on leather, studs, and S&M imagery (which ironically for such a macho genre came from his homosexual lifestyle). 

But with the exception of Priest and their continental counterparts the Scorpions, by the late 70’s heavy metal was starting to languish.  The godfathers of metal, Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Rainbow, etc., had broken up, mellowed, or undergone major personnel changes, and were releasing albums that had less punch and impact.  However, another generation of musicians was surging into the fore, particularly in England.  The New Wave of British Heavy Metal, or NWOBHM, started at this time as a reaction to the stagnation of metal in England.  These bands hewed to the sonic formula of Priest but added the rawness and DIY ethic of the then-dominant punk scene. NWOBHM bands like Praying Mantis, Raven, Holocaust, Blitzkrieg, Diamond Head, and Tygers of Pan Tang were faster, rougher, harder, and more street-level than their 70’s predecessors.  However, with two glaring and notable exceptions—the pop metal of Def Leppard and the operatic and melodic heavy metal of Iron Maiden—most NWOBHM bands made only the tiniest splash in mainstream metal circles.  However, they were a major influence on several American bands who would eventually take metal to its next level. 

They also inspired the top two English heavy metal bands to raise their game.  After the departure of Ozzy Osbourne in 1979, Black Sabbath appeared over as the new decade dawned, but they regrouped and added outstanding metal yowler Ronnie James Dio and released one of their best albums in five years, Heaven and Hell, the next year.  The album re-established Black Sabbath as a force in metal circles, and songs like “Neon Nights” displayed a newfound fluidity and speed that would soon be imitated by bands like Iron Maiden.  The same year (1980) Judas Priest released what is arguably their magnum opus, British Steel, an album that pushed the boundaries of metal still further with songs like “Rapid Fire”, “Grinder”, “Breaking the Law”, and “Living After Midnight”. 

Meanwhile, in America, heavy metal and punk were moving inexorably towards one another.  My first recollection of the merger of punk and metal was the 1983 song “Institutionalized” by Suicidal Tendencies.  The song, with its almost lilting rhythm and angry anti-establishment lyrics, is clearly punk.  But the squirrelly, noodling guitar backing by Grant Estes has a distinct metal sound to it.  ST and other Dogtown bands like Excel, Beowulf, No Mercy, Los Cycos and Uncle Slam would continue to mix the melodicism and intricacy of metal with the anger of punk and hardcore throughout the 80’s.  Meanwhile, first-run hardcore bands like Black Flag were also migrating toward a sludgier, more metallic sound.  I can still remember reading an article in Rolling Stone magazine in ’84 or ’85 on the SST bands and how they were obsessed with previously unthinkable non-punk bands like Black Sabbath and the Grateful Dead and being freaked out at their blasphemy; this was not the punk of 1981, of “The Decline of Western Civilization”, where Lee Ving of Fear famously starts their section out by saying “So how come they let all you long hairs in here tonight, what’s the problem?  Its 1980, can’t you afford a fuckin’ haircut?”

Then I started getting flashes of the other side of the coin, of metal that was converging on punk, and to me that’s where true thrash began, and where heavy metal evolved once again.  My first inkling that something new on the horizon was from almost this exact same time, 1984 or 1985, when I was going with my friend John to the legendary Long Beach Mexican food dive Casa Sanchez and saw a young hessianette (i.e., a female metaler) wearing a “Metallica ‘Metal Up Your Ass Tour’” (Metallica famously wanted to call their first album this, but the record label balked) concert t-shirt.  I can remember being absolutely APPALLED by the title (which was accompanied by a crude drawing of a hand thrusting a knife out of a toilet) and thinking, “Metallica, man that’s a hessian band name.” 

A year or so later there were more rumblings.  First was an article in BAM magazine, a free California music publication, on Metallica, which described how they were fans of GBH, the Exploited, the Misfits, etc.  This shocked me; as mentioned above, metal kids hated punk and punk kids hated metal.  For a bunch of unrepentant metallers to be espousing a passion for some of the hardest of hardcore punk imaginable was shocking.  Shortly after, in mid-’86 or thereabouts, Spin magazine ran an article on Metallica, further describing their enjoyment of punk.  The article also talked about how Metallica had opened for Ozzy on his tour and blown him off the stage; their fans had ripped out seats to form a slam pit at some Texas arena. 

Now I was intrigued.   This sounded like a band I had to hear.  In fall of ’86 I bought what I thought was one of their first albums, their 1984 sophomore effort, Ride the Lightning.  At first listen I was completely put off—whatever punk or hardcore influences Metallica had where obscured by the out-and-out, unadulterated metal aspects—the shrieking vocals, the highly technical solos, arpeggios, guitar harmonies, and riffing.  I set it aside, but I kept coming back to it, sometimes just to spite my roommate Steve, who was an obstinate punk fan.   I started to appreciate it for what it was, a really really REALLY squirrelly, extreme metal album.

I often wonder if my opinion of Metallica would have been different had I started with 1983’s Kill ‘Em All, which I bought a couple of years later.  While still very much a metal album, Kill ‘Em All is much rawer, rougher, cruder, closer to punk.  The most obvious influences on this album were the NWOBHM bands that drummer Lars Ulrich worshipped like Diamond Head, Blitzkrieg, and Holocaust.  However, even at this early stage Metallica was showing how better and more proficient they were than these influences; Kill ‘Em All is head and shoulders faster, angrier, more technical and more violent than anything these or any other NWOBHM band had recorded.  In a single swoop Metallica had raised the bar considerably, and songs like “Metal Militia” and “Whiplash” set a new, almost startingly high standard for heavy metal.  Their lightning fast tempos and insanely rapid supersonic riffing were light years faster than anything else recorded prior to this, and they remain to this day the hallmark for all subsequent speed metal and thrash bands.

Metallica’s first album was astonishingly good, a raise-the-bar answer to the NWOBHM bands.  But their second album, the aforementioned Ride the Lightning, was unbelievable.  Has ANY band ever improved like Metallica did between Kill and Lightning?  I think you’d have to look all the way back to the mid-70’s to find one; that would be Judas Priest between 1974’s dull, limp Rocka Rolla and 1976’s stronger Sad Wings of DestinyKill ‘Em All was an outstanding NWOBHM album; Ride the Lightning was a landmark heavy metal album, one that raised the bar for the entire genre.  Gone was the tinny, thin production, the shrill teenage vocals, and the short fast songs. The production was full, loud, resonant; the guitars leap out of the speakers, as does Lars Ulrich’s staccato drumming.  James Hetfield’s vocals have matured amazingly; he’s still young and angry but there’s a new, more mature malevolence to his vocals that brings him into Ozzy’s aura, and a surprising range to boot. 

But it’s the songs that blow you away.  Sonically and lyrically Metallica is like an entirely new band.  Gone are the angry, snarly odes to “thrashing all around, acting like a maniac”, gone are the sillier NWOBHM affectations.  Every song has taken the energy and anger of their debut and ratcheted up the intensity a thousandfold.  Most notably there’s a newfound maturity, a broadening of scope, of the lyrics.  The lyrics are intelligent and the themes are adult—nuclear holocaust, capital punishment, the horrors of war, and suicide are the focus now.  This, after more than a decade of party odes, Satanism, and generic rebellion, is arguably one of the first intelligent and relevant heavy metal albums, a worthy companion to anything Black Flag or the Germs ever wrote. 

One thing I also love is the pacing of the album.  This is not just a collection of songs randomly tossed onto vinyl; its intricately laid out and structured. Side one starts with “Fight Fire With Fire”, a faster-than-light lightning riffing song that takes the speed of “Whiplash” and ups the ante, but also lends itself to a more socially relevant topic, nuclear war.  However, it starts, surprisingly enough, with a lilting, almost medieval sounding acoustic guitar intro that utterly belies the guitar holocaust to come, then launches into the mind bogglingly fast riffage of the main body of the song.   Has any song ever so effectively evinced sonically its lyrical content?  Sonically this song is a jet attack, an atomic holocaust so complete and effective it’s hard to believe they can top it.

And to their everlasting credit, they don’t even try.  The second song, “Ride the Lightning” is a mid-temp chugger that, while lacking the blitzkrieg temp of “Fight Fire”, nevertheless is its equal in terms of intensity and drive.  The theme is no letup either; death by electrocution in the electric chair is the focus and Metallica’s lyrics explore both the personal horror of involuntary death as well as the ethical issues (‘who made you God to say, ‘I’ll take your life from you’?”) behind capital punishment.  Utterly different from “Fight Fire with Fire” it still maintains the relentless intensity of the first song.  If “Fire” is a jet attack, a nuclear firestorm scorching the earth flat, “Lightning” is a panzer attack, the sound of five thousand tanks rolling across the plains of Poland, crushing saber-wielding men and their horses under tread.  But here too there are elegant touches, the guitar harmonies that begin the song and fill the bridge and solo and reach another chugging crescendo before resolving back into the relentless headbanging lurch of the main body of the song yet again. 

The album’s third song slows the tempo down further, but still there’s no letup.  “For Whom the Bell Tolls” starts with a literally tolling bell before launching into one of the most famous instrumental pieces in all of rock, Cliff Burton’s magnificent, massive, brutally distorted amplified bass (which most people mistake for a guitar, and which Ulrich and Hetfield famously heard him playing in his band Trauma and which prompted them to ask him to join Metallica.  There’s a YouTube video of a teenage Burton playing the same thing for a high school talent contest nearly a decade before this, amazing to think of him keeping this with him all this time, and there’s also a great YouTube video of Cliff playing this live at such an apocalyptically loud volume that it sounds like the universe melting, before his tragically untimely demise in 1986).  “Fight Fire with Fire” is an F-14 strike, “Ride the Lightning” is a tank attack; “Bell” is the slow, steady, deadly slog of the foot soldier who is the topic of this song. The horrors of war have been the topic of many rock and in particular metal songs—Iron Maiden has written almost a dozen, most notably “The Trooper”—but none capture so masterfully both the pointlessness yet inexorability of war.

Throughout the first three songs, Metallica deftly shifts the tempo ever downward without losing intensity.  On the final song on side one of this album/cassette, they downshift further and make their boldest musical statement yet:  a ballad, “Fade to Black”.  Delicate without being dainty, contemplative without being mellow, “Fade to Black” was a total game changer, moving Metallica beyond the speed-for-speed’s-sake thrash of their peers into a whole new metal realm.  As metal became ever more popular and formulaic, in the 80’s it became required that every cheap copy hair metal band have their one ballad to show their soft side (and more importantly to sell albums and tickets to female fans), and the true power of these ballads to actually mean anything became diluted and weak, prom songs for middle American heshers to slow dance to.  When Metallica put “Fade to Black” on Ride the Lightning, this formula was by no means established and they were taking a huge risk, particularly in the thrash realm, possibly alienating their hardcore fans and losing whatever momentum they’d gained until then.  Amazingly, the exact opposite happened; they not only kept their existing fan base, they opened themselves up to a whole new fan base.  The song remains one of the most popular Metallica songs of all time.

Metallica get back to thrash business on side two, with three magnificently blistering songs, “Trapped Under Ice”, “Escape” and “Creeping Death”, which focus on more of the standard horror/fantastical metal theme of Iron Maiden.  But it’s the first four songs of “Ride the Lightning” that established Metallica as the premier heavy metal bands not just in America but in the world.  At this point only England’s Iron Maiden could even come within hailing distance of Metallica’s metal prowess, and while it would be three albums until Metallica would equal (and then surpass) Iron Maiden’s worldwide commercial success, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight it’s obvious now that a torch was being passed even then.  From this point onward in their career, Metallica had mastered metal to the point where no other band could be their equal, from now on they were only competing with themselves.  Ride the Lightning was a watershed, a stunning step ahead not just for themselves but for metal itself, its power and grace a monumental statement to the metal world.

Interestingly, I got into Metallica right when Master of Puppets came out, but this is still one of my least favorite Metallica albums to listen to even as I appreciate its complexity and musicianship were yet another step forward for the band.  The songs are just too long, too intricate, not catchy enough.  Ride the Lightning remains, in my opinion, their greatest moment, their most definitive metal statement.

Metallica had, of course, precedents, but few were as influential as Iron Maiden.  Formed by bassist (and only continuous member) Steve Harris in 1976, Maiden went through several lineup changes before releasing their 1980 self-titled debut album.  Much like Kill ‘Em All, Iron Maiden and its 1981 followup Killers were a shot across the bow of metal, a bold statement that Maiden were a major emerging power in metal.  What’s most interesting to me is what pioneers they were, particularly with respect to Metallica.  Their sound, like Metallica’s on Kill ‘Em All, was very rough and street level, especially on songs like “Runnin’ Free”, “Sanctuary”, “the Prowler”, and “Charlotte the Harlot”, “Killers”, and “the Drifter”; the vocals of Paul Di’Anno in particular have a raw, punkish, street tough aspect to them that was missing in the falsetto world of heavy metal. However, Maiden was a metal band through and through; their compositional skills, time signatures, twin guitars, guitar melodies, and the complex, melodic bass playing of Harris all were firmly heavy metal in intent and outcome.   And even at this early stage Iron Maiden was playing with more grandiose fantastical and literary themes on songs like “Phantom of the Opera”, “Murders in the Rue Morgue”, “Genghis Khan”, and “the Ides of March”.   They also predated Metallica’s evolution by including instrumentals and ballads on these early albums, and while “Remember Tomorrow” and “Strange World” lack the timelessness (to me anyway) of Metallica’s “Fade to Black” they nevertheless were landmark steps.

It was Iron Maiden’s third album, 1983’s Number of the Beast that, like Metallica’s Ride the Lightning, was a total game changer.  Exchanging Di’Anno’s passionate but limited vocals for the multi-octave range and theatrical personality of Bruce Dickinson, former lead singer of the NWOBHM band Samson, Iron Maiden took their game to an entirely new level, reaching the rarified air of Sabbath, Rainbow, and Priest.  Dickinson’s soaring range and leather-lunged shrieks, along with his larger-than-life stage persona, finally gave Iron Maiden a frontman to match the ever-increasing technical proficiency of their music and the grandiosity of their lyrical themes.  Lyrically the band was moving past the street anthems of the Di’Anno years toward more emphasis on the literary (and particularly horror and science fiction) themes they’d played with on their previous two albums.  However, they also beat Metallica to the punch in terms of adding even more sophisticated fare to their songs, such as the song detailing the plight of Native Americans that vaulted them to the top of the charts, “Run to the Hills”, with its galloping rhythm and soaring vocals still one of the greatest Maiden, and metal, songs ever recorded.  I have to admit, Iron Maiden was so totally metal in the day that they were anathema to me, and yet even I found myself compellingly attracted to this song.  This and the title song have long been my favorite Maiden songs, though admittedly I didn’t start listening to Paul Di’Anno era Maiden until about 10 years ago and they haven’t had as much time to integrate into my musical DNA.  “Hallowed be Thy Name” explored the theme of capital punishment well in advance of Metallica’s “Ride the Lightning”.  More recently I downloaded “The Prisoner” and “22 Acacia Avenue” and am greatly enjoying these too though it may be difficult to ever topple “Run” and “Number” from my all-time Maiden top ten list.

Maiden were pioneers in other ways as well.  Aside from their musical talents, they (particularly Harris, who has always been the brains and driving force behind Maiden) were always very focused on the non-musical end of things.  Most bands hate dealing with anything except for writing, practicing, and performing the music; the business end is tedious and usually left to the band manager or some other factotum.  But Iron Maiden from the start seemed to have a plan, and everything from the packaging to the stage show was developed with a shrewd eye toward pleasing, and expanding, their fan base.  Perhaps the most obvious example is Eddie, Iron Maiden’s now ubiquitously recognized mascot.  Eddie instantly became a highly visible visual trademark for the band; indeed, his presence on the early albums was probably the best signifier of what kind of music this was.  But Maiden continued to develop Eddie, and everything about their product, constantly investing money in more professional album covers, larger and more fantastic stages and stage shows, better production for their studio albums, and so forth.  This was an extremely shrewd, business-savvy approach and it allowed Maiden to exponentially expand their fan base with every release on their first few albums. 

It’s obvious that Metallica had a similar mindset; each of their albums also sported more professional graphics, better production, etc.  Metallica, like Maiden, were also the consummate professionals:  they gave frequent interviews, and were intelligent and friendly to fans and journalists alike.  More importantly, like Maiden they were devoted to their fans--early concerts were less like a musical event and almost more like a group meeting of the band’s fan club.  And Metallica soon achieved renown for the loyalty their fans showed in return; their fans bought their albums in droves, driving Metallica to commercial success in a notoriously harsh and non-commercially friendly genre (thrash) and despite almost no airplay on radio or MTV whatsoever until And Justice For All.  I can also remember my favorite part of Metallica’s episode of VH1’s Behind the Music, where they were talking about touring with Guns ‘N’ Roses in the late 80’s and how often Axl Rose would walk off stage in a snit, and how stupefied the band was about that:  to Metallica you NEVER walked out on your fans, the people who paid to come and see you.  I also remember how gracious Metallica was after the greatest injustice in Grammy history, when Jethro Tull was awarded the Grammy for Best Hard Rock album of 1988.  I can remember watching that broadcast and yelling at the TV, finally turning it off in disgust; it was literally a decade before I would deign to watch the Grammies again.

That’s not to say Metallica hasn’t made some missteps of late.  Their group image remodel in the 90’s was widely derided as a marketing move, and even though they denied it at the time, it seems obvious that all four members of Metallica didn’t go out and choose to get alterna-rock makeovers independent of one another.  That lost them some credibility with their fans, as did their now-legendary attempts to sue their own fans over illegal digital downloading of their music.  And finally, they are receiving nothing but scorn for their awful album with Lou Reed this past year, an album that on paper sounds like an intriguing idea but the execution wasn’t there.  But starting out, Metallica did everything right and kept their focus on their fans, and on delivering a quality product, and it earned them some of the most fiercely loyal fans in music.

The only other band to even approach the intensity of Metallica’s first two albums was Slayer.  My first Slayer album was 1986’s Reign in Blood (which I didn’t buy until 1988), and it remains for me the definitive musical document by this band and one of the greatest, most brutal metal/thrash albums of all time.  The very first song, “Angel of Death”, showcases the tremendous power and intensity of this band and illustrates that Metallica had changed heavy metal irrevocably.  Metallica’s influence is all over this song and album, from the blistering tempos to the chugging riffs to the intense subject matter.  “Angel of Death” is still the only song that can come close to equaling the intensity and magnificence of early Metallica, the only other song that could go toe-to-toe with “Fight Fire with Fire”:  “Fire” is more technically proficient but “Angel” is angrier, more brutal.  Like the Ali-Frasier heavyweight fights of the early 70’s, there’s no clear favorite here, either song could take the title on any given day.

Lyrically, Slayer also toed a fine line, between prurience and documentation.  Their obsession with all things evil, violent, disgusting, etc., walks a very fine line between these two domains.  “Angel of Death” could be heard as a condemnation of the atrocities of Josef Mengele, or as a lurid fascination with them.  And nearly every other Slayer song slides along this same razor’s edge.

  My other two favorites off this album are “Jesus Saves” (which has more in common with the staccato jackhammer rhythms of Suicidal Tendencies and the Dead Kennedys than it has with Iron Maiden or Judas Priest) and “Raining Blood”.  “Raining Blood” is like the omega to the alpha of “Black Sabbath”; both songs center on the supernatural and Slayer takes Sabbath’s original tale of demonic horror into the modern day, cranking everything up to 11.  This entire album is as uncompromising and brutal as music gets for me—literally. Slayer sits on the knife edge between listenable and unlistenable for me; I know bands have expanded upon their distillation of the hardest, harshest aspects of punk and metal (most notably grindcore bands like Napalm Death, Carcass and Nasum as I wrote about in a recent post), and while I have some of this other music, I rarely listen to it as its simply not pleasant.  Slayer could never be called pleasant either, but as I said to me their sound delineates the boundary between acceptably harsh and unlistenable noise. 

In the same way I wonder if I’d have gotten into Metallica even sooner if I’d bought Kill ‘Em All first, I also wonder if I’d have gotten into thrash sooner if I’d heard Slayer’s Reign in Blood first.  Tom Araya’s harsh, angry, shouted vocals and Slayer’s proto-hardcore guitar blasts are far closer to punk than anything Metallica recorded.  Still, Slayer is, and was then, undoubtedly a metal band, striving for metallic technicality in their solos and riffing, so perhaps not. 

 I now firmly believe that next to Metallica, Slayer is probably the greatest metal band that ever existed.  I think a big part of why I think this is because my wide ranging explorations of nearly all forms of rock music have made me very obsessed with DISTILLATES.  The Sex Pistols were the ultimate distillate of sneering punk derision; Joy Division was the ultimate distillate of post-punk anxiety, depression, self-loathing; Black Flag were the ultimate distillate of suburban hardcore rage; Talk Talk was the ultimate distillate of somber post-rock optimism.  And then you have Slayer:  they took everything that was dark, fantastical, Satanic, heavy, loud, and fast from all their precedents, and cooked it down to something even more pure.  It’s just truly the most extreme form of metal.  Their subject matter rarely strays from Satanism, serial killers, war atrocities, and horror. Now, I know others have built on what Slayer did, and grindcore in particular took things even more extreme in its way, but that gets away from true metal. 
Here's another thing:  "South of Heaven" may be the greatest metal song of all time.  Think of all it has.  It has fast parts, it has slow parts.  It has chugging, it has power chords, it has minor chords, it has doom chords, it has majestic chords, it has hooky riffs.  It’s dark, scary, evil, Satanic. It’s got a solo by Hanneman, it’s got a solo by King.  It ends on an infinite Nigel Tufnel go-out-and-get-a-bite-and-come-back sustain. And there's this:  Dave Lombardo's drumming is MAGNIFICENT, utterly MAGNIFICENT.  He's got the 200 bpm machine gun drumming, he's got staccato fills, he's just everywhere in that song in the best possible way a great drummer is, fleshing everything out perfectly without being overbearing. 

  And you know what?  Slayer was REVOLUTIONARY.  Slayer's musical sound is/was WAY farther from metal than, say, the Pistols' supposedly revolutionary punk rock sound was from ROCK.  You really find very few sonic precedents for Slayer.  They make Black Sabbath sound like the Carpenters or Starland Vocal Band.  It was really almost QUALITATIVELY different from nearly all metal that came before because it was so QUANTITATIVELY extreme.  Slayer and Metallica finally put a stake through the heart of the blues-based heavy metal of the late 60's and early 70’s.  Like Sabbath, their music has more in common with Stravinsky than it does Leadbelly; hell, they've got more in common with the Germs than they do with Led Zeppelin, and that's truly magnificent.

Slayer’s first two albums, 1983’s Show No Mercy and 1985’s Hell Awaits, were good but not game changing.  Most notably, the production is muddled and isn’t up to the power of the music, and Araya’s vocals are tinny and often lost in the mix.  They sound like a copy, slightly better admittedly but a copy nonetheless, of the pioneering English NWOBHM band Venom, who single-handedly created the black metal genre (which is named after their 1982 song and album of the same name).  I own a few Venom songs (the aforementioned “Black Metal” and “Countess Bathory”) but mostly for their historical value; unlike Metallica or Slayer, Venom never transcended their boundaries like Slayer did and their canon remains fairly modest in terms of its quality and impact.

Slayer’s secret weapon was, of course, producer Rick Rubin, who produced Reign and its followup, South of Heaven.  I’ve never figured out how Rubin, an East Coast rap impresario who started Def Jam Records in his NYU dorm room with Russell Simmons, got hooked up with a Satanic thrash band from the lower middle class suburban wastelands of Southern California, but it is his production of Reign in Blood that took Slayer from the minor leagues into the big time.  His production is crisp and elegant, cleaning up Slayer’s sound while maintaining their rawness and intensity.  He brings Lombardo’s outstanding drum work to the fore, and takes Araya’s vocals from muddy and cheesy to harsh and in your face.  The difference between Reign in Blood and Hell Awaits is nearly as large as the difference between Kill ‘Em All and Ride the Lightning.  This has to be one of Rubin’s finest moments behind the board in a long and storied career—if he could make Slayer sound this crisp and professional, he could make ANYONE sound good. 

Rubin also did two other things that put Slayer more on the map.  First, as mentioned above, he sampled the fantastic bridge from “Angel of Death” for “She Watch Channel Zero” by Public Enemy on their breakthrough album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, giving them massive additional exposure (as mentioned, it was the reason why I personally bought Slayer’s album).  Second, he had them cover “In A Gadda da Vida” on the best-selling soundtrack he produced for the movie Less Than Zero, giving them still further exposure.  The band famously do not like this song but it’s always been a favorite of mine, humorous in how it distills the essence of this long, indulgent hippie era classic into a 3 minute blast of classic Slayer rage. 

Were it not for a few quirks of fate, the Bay Area band Exodus, contemporaries with Metallica and Slayer, might be held in the same regard by the general population as these two bands.  Exodus famously gave up founding guitarist Kirk Hammett to Metallica after Metallica’s falling out with Dave Mustaine.  Their album Bonded by Blood was recorded in 1984, midway between Kill ‘Em All and Ride the Lightning, but wasn’t released until 1985, well after these two albums had established the canon.  I like the title track and “A Lesson in Violence”, but neither to me achieves the heights of Metallica or Slayer.

People often talk of the “Big Four” of thrash; there was even a tour named this last year.  This is, of course, Metallica and Slayer, along with Megadeth and Anthrax.  However, I dismiss any claims to a tetrarchy here.  Metallica and Slayer reign supreme, and neither of these other two bands came anywhere close.  Anthrax I can dismiss easily enough; they were an East Coast band and had little if any impact on the fertile West Coast metal scene until much later (their mash-up of “Bring the Noise” with Public Enemy was a landmark in metal/hip hop fusion, a thrash answer to “Walk This Way” by Aerosmith and Run DMC).  Megadeth, aside from two noteworthy exceptions, never put out a song that came close to achieving the grandeur or influence of anything by Metallica or Slayer.  The two exceptions are “Peace Sells”, one of the angriest metal songs ever recorded, and “In My Darkest Hour”, with its breakup despair. 

Like mushrooms sprouting in fertile soil, thrash bands started popping up all over the world:  Voivod  (I love “Voivod” and “War and Pain” off their eponymous 1984 album) in Quebec, Celtic Frost (I have “The Usurper”, an utterly insane song, and “Dawn of Meggido” off 1985’s To Mega Therion) in Switzerland, Kreator in Germany (my favorite is “Ghetto War” and the title track off 2001’s Violent Revolution; “Ghetto War” may be my next most favorite non-Metallica or Slayer thrash song ever) and many many others everywhere else.  Testament (another good Bay area thrash band), Nuclear Assault (who were formed by a former member of Anthrax; I like “Rise from the Ashes” from 1987’s Survive), Cryptic Slaughter (I have “Lowlife” off 1986’s Convicted, recorded when the band were still all high school age, and “Money Talks” off their 1987 album of the same name),  Phoenix, Arizona’s Sacred Reich (“State of Emergency” and “American Way” off their 1990 album American Way), Stormtroopers of Death (a side project of Scott Ian of Anthrax; I like their politically incorrect 1985 song “Speak English or Die”), Crumbsuckers (“Life of Dreams” off the album of the same name from 1986), Carnivore (formed by future Type O Negative bassist/singer Peter Steele; I have “Inner Conflict” and “Retaliation” off their 1986 eponymous album) Death Angel (I love “Bored” and their cover of “Cold Gin” off 1988’s Frolic through the Park, which I bought when it came out)—there were many many bands who sprouted up after the initial onslaught of Metallica and Slayer.  But none of them truly captured the intensity and power of either of the “Big Two”.

If you had told me 25 years ago that Metallica and/or Slayer would be one of the biggest bands in the world I’d told you that you were insane.  As good as Ride the Lightning was, it wasn’t anything that would have made you think they would one day end up in the company of U2 and R.E.M., but here we are.  As mentioned, Metallica continued to evolve beyond their speed metal origins and became an insanely popular general rock band.  Slayer has maintained their long standing reputation as the most intense thrash band and continue to make a deservedly lucrative living recording and touring. What was particularly fascinating to me was to watch as pop or hair or glam metal (whatever you want to call it) rose, became the dominant pop music paradigm, but eventually crashed on the reef of grunge, meanwhile thrash continued to soldier stolidly along and maintained or even increased its popularity. It is still amazing to think that a band I’d first seen on a “Metal Up Your Ass” concert t-shirt would one day become the biggest rock band on earth.