The 80's gave birth to some of the worst "metal" ever, no doubt. But also some of the very best:
Ozzy Osbourne, Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman
Ozzy gets booted from Sabbath or quits -- no one's exactly sure -- in the late 70's and briefly considers becoming a bloated, wasted, washed-up has-been, then decides instead to put together a nuclear-strength band (featuring guitar prodigy Randy Rhoads), and unleashes two stone cold metal classics in 1981 and 1982.
If you're interested in metal at all you should have both of these albums but BEWARE!! -- there are reissued versions of Blizzard and Diary that you must steer very clear of!
The evil Sharon Osbourne (I mean really evil, not pretend evil, like Ozzy), in her bottomless greed, decided a few years ago that she could save a few bucks in back royalty payments to original Blizzard of Ozz members Lee Kerslake and Bob Daisley (drummer and bassist, respectively) by erasing their tracks from the master tapes and replacing them with new tracks recorded by guns-for-hire (Mike Bordin and Robert Trujillo), who were probably paid a relatively small, one-time fee for their work by the parsimonious Osbourne.
(incidentally, parsimonious means FUCKING CHEAP-ASS GREEDY MOTHERFUCKER!)
Bottom line is, this is BLASPHEMY! And a disrespect to the late Randy Rhoads. Not to mention -- did they think they could really replace those incredible drum sounds on "Over the Mountain"? The very notion is ridiculous. Buy used copies of these (Sharon's purse does not need any more padding) and check the liner notes carefully before doing so!
Accept, Restless and Wild, Balls to the Wall, Metal Heart and Russian Roulette
One of the greatest metal acts ever, underrated Teutonic headbangers Accept were pioneers in thrash (check out "Breaker" and "Fast As a Shark") and possessed an unparalleled knack for muscular, melodic metal. There's no mistaking the glorious shriek of lead singer/goblin Udo Dirkshneider, and guitarists Wolf Hoffman and Jorg Fischer always played with a melodic tastefulness and imagination you don't see that often in metal. The rhythm section played tight, economical grooves that created both power and space.
If you could only buy one Accept record, it oughta be 1984's legendary, notorious Balls to the Wall, which boasts not only the marching, anthemic title track (of which the mighty Ronnie James Dio himself said "I wish I'd written it!") but plenty of other undisputed classics like "Head Over Heels" and "Love Child," whose pummeling guitar crunch is counterbalanced by undeniable catchiness.
Interestingly, many of the lyrics on Balls to the Wall deal with squirmy themes of sexual confusion and blatant, overheated homoeroticism. For a metal band, this kind of open ambiguity/explicitness is especially ballsy, pardon the pun. The heavy metal community has always been hopelessly macho and not known for its tolerance. And remember, this is a full decade before Rob Halford came out of the closet! If you ask me, it makes Accept even cooler.
Dio, Holy Diver and Last in Line
How can you talk about metal without mentioning Dio? The little man with a voice ten feet tall made three early metal masterpieces with Blackmore's Rainbow in the 1970's, breathed new life into Black Sabbath in the early 80's and then made two timeless (for the most part) metal classics with his own band.
It was a great band, too: drummer Vinnie Appice, whose crushing, deliberate beats drove Sabbath during the latter part of Dio's tenure in that band, came along for the ride; bassist Jimmy Bain was an ex-member of Rainbow. And 19-year-old Irish whippersnapper Vivian Campbell joined this band of veterans and proceeded to chew up the scenery with his imaginative, frenzied guitar playing.
Holy Diver is as good as metal gets and it's a fantastic album by any yardstick. With a crack band behind him, Dio weaves his patented layers of dark lyrical imagery, employing lots of ambiguous metaphors ("Rainbow in the Dark") and cautionary wisdom ("Don't Talk to Strangers"). But vocally, the man is unmatched -- Dio oscillates effortlessly between the gentlest purr and the most frightening heights of roaring, demonic power. He can also write a hook; for all of Holy Diver's furious power, there are more than enough melodies that get stuck in your brain and have you singing along ("Caught in the Middle," "Straight Through the Heart," "Rainbow in the Dark").
Some of the album's best moments arrive when Dio and his band seamlessly combine melody and menace into one bewitching, irresistible force, as on "Gypsy," "Invisible" and "Shame on the Night."
Dio's second album Last in Line was a lil' glossier and featured the awful wannabe pop single "Mystery" but it's pretty damned good overall. If the album-opening "We Rock" doesn't hit quite as hard as Holy Diver's "Stand Up and Shout," it certainly has its own majestic rush, not to mention a nice sentiment of inclusiveness. We rock! You can't go wrong with that. Elsewhere, the soaring title track, with its soft/loud suckerpunch opening, and the sensual "One Night in the City" certainly stand among Dio's finest songs.
Some of Last in Line borders on what critics would call "by-the-numbers craftsmanship" (songs like "Breathless" and "Evil Eyes" are the kind of tunes Dio can write in his sleep) but hell, it all sounds so good you hardly care.
Anthrax, Among the Living
Anthrax have other great albums but nowhere is their vision better realized than on their deadly third album Among the Living. Classics like "Caught In a Mosh," "I Am the Law" and "Imitation of Life" are delivered with breakneck velocities and a clear, in-your-face production (courtesy of Eddie Kramer).
Anthrax's comic book sense of humor and overall sense of Noo Yawk-ness set them apart from their death-obsessed West Coast thrash contemporaries. But the band also display a refreshing social consciousness that was fairly unique for a band playing this kind of music. During the course of Among the Living, Anthrax take aim at drug addiction, violence and the plight of the American Indian, among other things. If you're looking for the usual "sex, drugs and rock n' roll" routine, look elsewhere.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, this is where the ubiquitous expression "NOT!" was born. Seriously!
Loudness, Disillusion, Thunder In the East and Lightning Strikes
Led by lightning-fingered guitarist Akira Takasaki, brilliant Japanese metallers Loudness made a bid for the American market in the 80's but never really took off here. Maybe it's the admittedly funny-sounding accent. But hell, these guys blew away most metal bands and they deserved a lot more credit than they received. The playing is ferocious, the arrangements are interesting and, most importantly, the songs are great.
Disillusion, of which I found a vinyl copy on eBay a couple of years ago, is Loudness's first English-lyrics album but it never got released here. The next two records were put out in America by Atco Records and are the group's best-known albums, deservedly so. High-velocity ragers like "Clockwork Toy" and "Street Life Dream" are where Loudness really shine; the combination of agression, melody and instrumental sophistication is stunning. There are some attempts at mainstream pop metal scattered throughout ("Crazy Nights," "Let It Go") but even on those lighter numbers, the band rips.
Def Leppard, High and Dry and Pyromania
When you think of the worst of 80's "hair metal," you may think that Def Leppard were part of the problem. Well, that's debatable. But one thing's true: before "hair metal" became an industry term, Def Leppard were an honest-to-god great heavy rock band. Their second album High and Dry was aggressive and melodic, and had the size of AC/DC's best records (thanks to producer Mutt Lange). The album's ballad, "Bringing on the Heartbreak," was a power ballad before "power ballad" became an industry term. And more importantly, it was a damn good song.
Mutt Lange raised the bar dramatically, production-wise, for Leppard's third album, Pyromania, apparently dragging the band, kicking and screaming (and drinking) through the whole painstaking process. The sound was slick but still punchy, employing synthesizers and electronic drums at times, but always with the guitars in the forefront. The most impressive thing about Pyromania, though, is the songs -- gems like "Stagefright," "Foolin'" and of course "Photograph" proved that Def Leppard had figured out how to write pop songs within a hard rock context. Consequently, Def Lep were perhaps the first metal band to attract female audience members.
Either way, Leppard struck a perfect balance of pop and metal on Pyromania, and nothing's been the same since. Within minutes of this album's release, Bon Jovi were out running loose in the world, turning "pop metal" into a hideous commodity for housewives. It went downhill quickly from there, straight to Steelheart and Tuff.
Queensryche, Rage for Order and Operation Mindcrime
"Silent Lucidity"?! Please. Queensryche peaked before that fluke hit.
This brainy metal quintet from Seattle outgrew their traditional metal influences (Iron Maiden being the most obvious) by the time of their second album, Rage for Order. Rather than wallowing in rock cliches, lyrically, Queensryche tackled existential themes like Orwellian mind control and the struggle to maintain one's identity in the "computer age."
Ironically the band couched these lyrical themes in an ultra-digital, futuristic production style, which is surprisingly effective, given the subject matter; throughout Rage for Order, the band's airtight instrumental performances -- and singer Geoff Tate's hair-raising vocals -- sound freeze-dried within icy synthesizers and cold, computer-generated sounds. It sounds dated today but you have to give the band props for trying to expand the sonic parameters of 80's metal.
Amazingly, Queensryche broke through to the masses with their next disc, an extremely ambitious concept album called Operation: Mindcrime. Fusing a fairly detailed plot line (disenchanted fortune hunter joins underground movement to assassinate political leaders -- and has a tragic affair with a nun while he's at it!) with a musical score that is equally intricate and keeping it all cohesive and interesting from start to finish can't be the easiest juggling act in the world but somehow Queensryche keep all the balls in the air.
Operation: Mindcrime was a pretty unprecedented achievement for a metal band; the musical complexity and intellectual acumen Queensryche displayed on this album surely won some grudging respect from heavy metal haters. After Mindcrime, who could say heavy music was just for morons anymore?
Mercyful Fate, Melissa and Don't Break the Oath
One of the forerunners of black metal, the great Mercyful Fate made two classic albums packed with churning, angular guitar riffs and some of the scariest singing ever, thanks to the multi-octaved lead vocalist King Diamond, who, festooned in ghoulish corpse paint, howled brazenly about Satanism, the occult and all manner of blasphemous subject matter. Diamond's unearthly voice can often be heard to jump from a sinister growl to a glass-breaking falsetto scream in one line.The effect is almost comic. Maybe it is comic.
The first album, Melissa, is a cavernous black metal classic and an ambitious piece of work, loaded to the gills with unpredictably linear arrangements and a tendency toward long, meandering song structures. There are so many riffs packed into these songs that it's usually just as entertaining to listen to the rhythm guitar parts underneath the guitar solos as it is to listen to the solos themselves.
Melissa is a fantastic album. But Oath is bloody godhead! This time around the arrangements are tighter and the whole affair comes off as much more focused and menacing. Guitarists Michael Denner and Hank Sherman weave a wicked sonic tapestry of gothic riffs and harmonies, which are occasionally enhanced by some truly eerie keyboard parts.
Meanwhile King Diamond is at his theatrical best, conjuring demons, lost souls and black magic with his ghostly symphony of voices. This is genuinely scary music. All those Scandinavian church-torchers owe a debt to Mercyful Fate, for better or worse!
Judas Priest, British Steel and Screaming for Vengeance
Judas Priest in the 1970s were a fairly eclectic heavy rock band, and far more deeply layered than the cartoonish "metal gods" they became in the 80s. But maybe they were too multi-dimensional for their own good? It seems that, as the 70's drew to a close, Priest were streamlining their sound a little more with each album. By the time of 1980's British Steel, Rob Halford and crew had virtually taken a machete and cut away all the subtlety and musical diversity that had once nuanced their records, leaving only the heaviest riffs and an AC/DC-like tendency toward simple, fist-pumping grooves.
This decision paid off for Judas Priest, and not just commercially. On British Steel, the band boiled themselves down to pure metal. The brutally simple riffs that drive "Metal Gods," "Grinder" and the Beavis and Butthead-approved "Breaking the Law" were about as cut-and-dried Heavy Metal (with capitals!) as you could get. For that matter, now the lyrics were about heavy metal -- I think Priest were the first band to do that!
If British Steel was Priest's best album, Screaming for Vengeance was their ultimate album. By 1982 Priest's sound was polished and refined to the point of being almost otherworldly; now beyond arena-sized, gleaming metal classics like "You've Got Another Thing Coming" and "Electric Eye" sounded as if they were blaring out of giant, stainless steel loudspeakers poised to reach every corner of the galaxy.
Motley Crue, Too Fast for Love and Shout at the Devil
The low-fidelity Too Fast for Love is an endearingly amateurish debut brimming with energy and the indispensable "Live Wire," whose cowbell sounds have yet to be matched anywhere. But the Crue reached their sensationalistic peak on the second album, Shout at the Devil, by throwing some over-the-top visuals and lite "satanism" into the pot along with the usual sex/drugs/rocknroll ingredients. The overall effect is decadent to the point of being apocalyptic.
But the bad news for hand-wringing parents everywhere was the fact that these songs were catchy; "Looks that Kill," "Too Young to Fall in Love" and the title track are so irresistible, they must be the work of Satan.
Metallica, Kill 'Em All, Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets
At this point we all probably know too much about Metallica. But it can't be overstated what a toweringly great band they once were. The amphetamine-driven, hummingbird thrash of their out-for-blood debut Kill 'Em All wasn't all that radically different from that of other Motorhead-inspired California longhairs like Exodus and Slayer.
But by their third album, Master of Puppets, Metallica were sculpting slabs of crushing, oceanic, epic metal of astonishing power, depth and beauty. Yes, beauty. Puppets is one of the greatest metal albums of all time, and just as important as Sabbath's first, if you want to know what I think about it.
Slayer, Show No Mercy, Haunting the Chapel, Live Undead, Hell Awaits, Reign in Blood and South of Heaven
Slayer really deserve their own blog. At the moment, the thought of trying to describe why they're so great exhausts me, so I will defer to All Music Guide's Steve Huey, who describes their third full-length album Reign In Blood as eloquently as anyone I've heard:
Widely considered the pinnacle of speed metal, Reign in Blood is Slayer's undisputed masterpiece, a brief (under half an hour) but relentless onslaught that instantly obliterates anything in its path and clears out just as quickly.
Producer Rick Rubin gives the band a clear, punchy sound for the first time in its career, and they largely discard the extended pieces of Hell Awaits in favor of lean assaults somewhat reminiscent of hardcore punk (though distinctly metallic and much more technically demanding).
Reign in Blood opens and closes with slightly longer tracks (the classics "Angel of Death" and "Raining Blood") whose slower riffs offer most of the album's few hints of melody. Sandwiched in between are eight short (all under three minutes), lightning-fast bursts of aggression that change tempo or feel without warning, producing a disjointed, barely controlled effect. The album is actually more precise than it sounds, and not without a sense of groove, but even in the brief slowdowns, the intensity never lets up.
There may not be much variation, but it's a unified vision, and a horrific one at that. The riffs are built on atonal chromaticism that sounds as sickening as the graphic violence depicted in many of the lyrics, and Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman's demented soloing often mimics the screams of the songs' victims. It's monstrously, terrifyingly evocative, in a way that transcends Reign in Blood's metal origins. The album almost single-handedly inspired the entire death metal genre (at least on the American side of the Atlantic), and unlike many of its imitators, it never crosses the line into self-parodic overkill. Reign in Blood was a stone-cold classic upon its release, and it hasn't lost an ounce of its power today.
Another item I think worthy of note: Reign In Blood's lyrics contain variations on the word death (i.e., dead, die, dying) no less than 56 times.
Ok, is that recommendation enough for you?!
Seriously. If you don't own Reign In Blood, stop reading this stupid blog and buy a copy NOW!!!
Yngwie Malmsteen, Rising Force , Marching Out and Trilogy
Although he's a walking cliche these days, Swedish guitar virtuoso/egomaniac Yngwie (don't forget the J.!) Malmsteen really caused a stir in the heavy metal guitar community in the 80's. In fact it could be argued that Malmsteen made just as big a fuss in that decade as Eddie Van Halen had in the late 70's.
What set this guy apart from everyone else was that he was a heavy metal guitarist whose primary influences were centuries-dead classical composers and violinist Nicolo Paganini. And indeed, Yngwie's immersion in the classics lent his playing an undeniable technical and compositional sophistication which was heretofore unheard-of in metal.
Malmsteen's first album is his best; mostly instrumental, it is packed to the rim with inspired compositions, dramatic classical melodies and scads of blinding solos. The next two albums, Marching Out and Trilogy, lean much more heavily toward vocal songs and shorter arrangements; there are even some stabs at pop metal (Trilogy's "You Don't Remember, I'll Never Forget" and "Fire"). Throughout both of these albums Yngwie does a fine job of balancing his indulgent, progressive inclinations with an impressive talent for writing concise, melodic metal songs. The guitar playing is brilliant and there are some genuinely good tunes here.
But past Trilogy, Yngwie's shtick gets redundant fast; his playing is breathtaking up til a point, then it just gets boring. Soon it occurs to you that you can pretty much hear the full breadth of his chops -- stunning as they are -- in any given song. Then there are no more surprises, just repetition.
Black Sabbath, Heaven and Hell, Mob Rules, Born Again and Seventh Sign
Black Sabbath's evil heyday was the 1970's, but it would be highly unfair to say their potency ended in that decade. In fact, many fans consider the two records Sabbath made with former Rainbow vocalist Ronnie James Dio (1980's Heaven and Hell and '81's Mob Rules) to be vastly superior to the last couple of platters the Sabs churned out with Ozzy (the truly lackluster Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die!).
And sure enough, songs like "Neon Nights," "Children of the Sea," "Heaven and Hell," "Turn Up the Night" and "Mob Rules" are widely thought to be as powerful and timeless as anything else in the catalog. But after Dio quit the band in '82, things got even more interesting in the Sabbath camp.
The remaining members of Sabbath (guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler and ailing drummer Bill Ward) then hired Ian Gillian -- he who immortalized Deep Purple classics like "Woman from Tokyo," "Highway Star" and the perennial "Smoke on the Water" with his unmistakable wail -- to fill Dio's shoes. When you think about it, they couldn't have made a better choice.
This rather formidable lineup recorded just one album, 1983's ill-fated Born Again. It must be said that Born Again is a crappy-sounding album. It appears to have been made under water. Whoever produced this thing (reduced it, is more like it) should be doing community service because he ruined what may have been a great Sabbath album; "Trashed," "Zero the Hero" and "Digital Bitch" would be considered classics had they been recorded better. Maybe someday someone will remix this poor beast...
Anyway, Gillian toughed it out with the Sabs for one tour and then bailed to reunite with Purple in '84. Sabbath now being all but defunct, Tony Iommi decided to do a solo album. He assembled an all-new lineup including -- get this! -- lead singer Glenn Hughes, another Deep Purple alum. If you think this is all starting to sound a bit incestuous, you're right.
Iommi finishes his solo record, Seventh Star, but apparently in the eleventh hour, his dumb record label insists he release it under the confusing moniker Black Sabbath featuring Tony Iommi. Ok, whatever. It's an Iommi solo album in all respects but the name, and it's hard to call Seventh Sign a Sabbath record but here we are.
All that junk aside, Star is a surprisingly inspired bunch of songs -- far better than what anyone could reasonably have expected from Iommi, now barrelling down the 15th year of a prolific and physically exhausting career. Hughes is a helluva singer, whose falsetto screams rival those of any other metal shrieker you care to mention on barn-burners like "In for the Kill" and "Turn to Stone," while his bluesier approach warms up tunes like the wonderful dark ballad "No Stranger to Love" and the title track "Seventh Star." Meanwhile, Iommi's distinctive playing (there's simply no one who sounds like this man!) is fresh and inspired all the way through.
W.A.S.P willfully gained a fair amount of notoriety in the 80's thanks to a penchant for obscenity, tastelessly gimmicky stage antics and flat-out parent-baiting. But it also must be pointed out that their debut album is a surprisingly good collection of simple, Kiss-inspired metal anthems. The playing is somewhat crude but the hooks are strong enough to carry the show; check out "I Wanna Be Somebody," "L.O.V.E. Machine" and "Hellion" and see if you don't agree. Just be careful with that saw blade...
Megadeth, Killing Is My Business...and Business Is Good! and Peace Sells...But Who's Buying?
Crybaby Dave Mustaine gets fired from Metallica in 1983 for being an annoying, drunk blowhard and promptly embarks on a lifelong quest for revenge. At times, Mustaine's mighty Megadeth have trampled all over Metallica, just in terms of attitude, sheer fury and instrumental prowess. Their debut is a raw blast of speed metal, perhaps not extraordinary, but 1987's Peace Sells... will give any thrash album a run for its money; it absolutely burns from front to back. Somehow these songs -- "Wake Up Dead," "The Conjuring," "Black Friday," etc -- combine desperate, feral recklessness with fluid, controlled virtuosity -- a nice counterpoint to Metallica's smooth, mechanical tightness. Mustaine is out of his mind but he's made some fantastic records.
King Diamond, Fatal Portrait and Abigail
Maybe King Diamond thought he was too good for Mercyful Fate. In any case, after making two very influential albums with that band, he stole their bassist and one of their guitarists (Timi Hansen and Michael Denner, respectively) and split for a solo career.
His first album, Fatal Portrait, finds the former Kim Bendix Petersen dabbling tentatively with conceptual elements, using a loose storyline to lyrically connect all the songs in the album's first half (and the disc's final track) in a macabre tale of demon possession. It is fun stuff. The overt satanism of Mercyful Fate is toned down noticeably here; listening to Fatal Portrait is more like watching a good Hammer horror flick than hearing a manifesto from Anton LaVey.
Musically, the album kicks ass; new recruit Andy LaRocque adds a more high-tech sort of guitar flash to Denner's relatively restrained melodicism and the pairing works swell. Diamond also picked a winner in super-capable drummer Mikkey Dee, whose muscular playing drives the music with total command.
King Diamond's second album Abigail is considered his masterpiece and probably one of the greatest metal concept albums ever recorded. Emboldened by the success of his debut, Diamond fulfills all of his conceptual ambitions here and spins a spine-tingling yarn across the span of the entire album this time.
The band could not have supported Mr. Diamond's creepy lyrical ideas better; killer riffs, gorgeous atmospherics and plenty of instrumental fireworks occur in rich abundance here. And Diamond's voice, itself an orchestral instrument, is cleverly multi-tracked in fantastically intricate layers of harmony and texture.
From Abigail's bone-chilling introduction ("Funeral") to its epic finale ("Black Horsemen"), it is a triumph of composition and storytelling, a goth/metal tour de force.
Iron Maiden, Killers, The Number of the Beast, Piece of Mind and Powerslave
Maiden's first two albums feature the gruff-but-loveable lead vocals of Paul Di'anno and many consider those albums to be classics. There is certainly a rough-hewn, streetwise quality to songs like "Prowler," "Running Free" and "Wrathchild" that brushes ever so slightly up against punk, at least in terms of attitude.
But the band didn't really come into their own -- if you ask me -- until they recruited Bruce "Air Raid Siren" Dickinson as their mouthpiece. With Dickinson in front, Iron Maiden released The Number of the Beast in 1982 and immediately became the most quintessential heavy metal band since Judas Priest. The next two albums (and their accompanying tours) only reinforced the band's stature, validity and popularity. By 1984 Maiden were headlining Enormo-domes across the world -- and without a lick of help from radio or MTV. Pretty remarkable. Only Metallica would fill this band's shoes.
I have to point something else out -- alot of people overlook the fact that Iron Maiden were largely responsible for bringing intelligent lyrics to the metal milieu. None of the usual knuckle-dragging, get-drunk-and-fuck sentiments can be found on Maiden's records. Well-read bassist Steve Harris, who writes most of the band's lyrics, is more interested in history, war, mortality, and occasionally -- just occasionally -- the occult.
Maiden are still going strong today and god bless 'em.