Category: Album Review


Nitro – “O.F.R.” (1989)

NitroRidiculous!  How else can one describe Nitro’s O.F.R.?  Nitro took glam metal to the extreme, offering up what I can only assume was a tongue-in-cheek satire of heavy metal in the late eighties.  Everything Nitro did was preposterous and over the top.  In a way, Nitro did to glam what Manowar did to traditional metal — taking the tropes of their chosen genre and exaggerating them to a point of absurdity.  Their hair was out-f*ckin-rageous, their vocals were out-f*cking-rageous, and their guitar playing was out-f*cking-rageous.  In case you haven’t figured it out by now, O.F.R. stood for Out-F*cking-Rageous.

Of course, we can’t go any further without first discussing Jim Gillette’s dog whistle vocals.  The man possessed a jaw-dropping vocal range, much like King Diamond.  But just because you can hit glass-shattering high notes doesn’t mean you should do so all the time.  But Gillette does so about 90% of the time!  Like King Diamond, this becomes laughably idiotic about 30 seconds into the album.  And like K.D., when Gillette goes for the real low notes, he sounds cartoonishly awful.

As for guitarist Michael Angelo (Batio), the man could play insanely fast, and he was obviously a word-class shredder.  He sometimes played a special “quad-guitar”, too.  Check him out in this video for the song Freight Train.  His rhythm playing on O.F.R. was pretty straightforward, but his solos were awe-inspiring (even if they weren’t exactly “musical”).

An album like O.F.R. is pretty immune to any objective criticism because it shouldn’t be taken seriously in the first place.  The only thing I can do is ask myself whether I enjoy listening to it or not.  The answer, surprisingly, is “yeah”.  I particularly like the song Long Way From Home.  It is the closest thing we get to a legitimate song on the album.  The vocal harmonies are actually really cool!  Another song that kind of kicks ass is Shot Heard ‘Round The World.

You have to be in the right mindset to even attempt to listen to O.F.R., but when the mood strikes it can be a guilty pleasure.  Just make sure nobody overhears you listening to it.  That would be embarrassing.  My score: B-  

In HeatBlack ‘N Blue originally emerged with a really strong debut called Black ‘N Blue in 1984.  But despite the promise delivered by that first record, Black ‘N Blue’s career never took off.  Fast forward to 1988 and Black ‘N Blue’s fourth album In Heat.  By this time, Black ‘N Blue had hitched their wagons to none other than certified asshole Gene Simmons.  Gene took the band under his (bat) wing — producing In Heat, co-writing a few songs, and generally steering the band towards “success”.  But of course, relying on Gene Simmons to help you succeed musically is like asking Helen Keller to babysit your kids.  The man was wholly and hilariously without a clue.  Let’s face it, Gene’s musical acumen in the eighties was pretty f*cking suspect.  The only thing he had mastered was the fine art of “filler”, thanks to his underwhelming contributions to the KISS albums of the eighties.  Anyway, In Heat really reeks of Gene’s miserable taint.  Gene took Black ‘N Blue’s best attribute, knuckle-headed sincerity, and shat on it with his misguided notion of what it means to make music.  What once seemed natural and endearing to Black ‘N Blue (good dumb fun), now seemed overly forced and insincere.  It is as if Gene wanted every song on In Heat to be some kind of crowd pleasing, sing-along rock anthem.   But the execution was so tepid and unnatural that it pains me to hear Black ‘N Blue reduced to this level.  Production-wise, Simmons obviously wanted to make an album like Def Leppard’s Hysteria, but of course he failed miserably.  Too bad for Black N’ Blue, because they were kind of a cool band (and there are a few nice riffs and hooks here).  Unfortunately, Gene never knew a thing about having a soul, so it’s not surprising that In Heat feels soulless and calculated.  You can taste the desperation.  My score: C+

Time for another big-ass list!

These are my personal favorite hard rock and metal albums from 1986.  These are the albums I have listened to and enjoyed the most over the years.  You may not like my choices.  Shit, you’ll probably HATE my number one!  Who cares.  Let’s roll…

20.  Waysted – Save Your Prayers

WaystedHere at PLAY IT LOUD! headquarters, we have a real soft spot for Waysted.  Led by ex-UFO bassist Pete Way, this band dished out some high-caliber hard rock from 1983-1986.  Unfortunately, not many people seemed to notice this at the time.  The consensus here at PLAY IT LOUD! is that Waysted deserved better!

Waysted’s last album (before break-up), Save Your Prayers, was quite different from the two full-length LPs and one mini-LP that preceded it.  Original vocalist “Fin” was replaced by youngster Danny Vaughn.  The two singers had completely different voices.  While Fin’s voice was like sandpaper, Vaughn’s voice was smoother than a billiard ball.  Also, Save Your Prayers received a pretty glossed-up sonic bath thanks to producer Simon Hanhart.  By contrast, Waysted’s three records with Fin had a lively, raw sound.  These two huge changes for Waysted weren’t necessarily good things.  I much prefer the rough n’ tumble sound of Waysted’s first three records.  Nevertheless, Pete Way was still writing the tunes, and that was a good thing.  This was a new, different Waysted, but at the same time, it was the same ol’ Waysted.  (Huh?)

Save Your Prayers came out on Parlophone Records.  The label took interest in Waysted thanks to their great tune Heaven Tonight, which appeared on their 1985 LP The Good The Bad The Waysted.  Parlophone wanted Waysted to re-record the tune for Save Your Prayers.  Joining Way and Vaughn in the Waysted line-up was returning guitarist Paul Chapman (ex-UFO), and some other guy on drums.  The album kicks off with its two best cuts up front; Walls Fall Down and Black & Blue.  As per usual, Way showed that he could write quality hard rock tunes that were well-balanced, with strong bridges, and great sing along choruses.  Vaughn possessed a nice voice, too.  Like I said, it was polar opposite to Fin’s, but that’s my problem, not his.  As for Heaven Tonight, the version on Save Your Prayers just couldn’t compare to the original.  But when all is said and done, this is a quality hard rock album that in no way sullied Waysted’s good name.  (Note: Save Your Prayers was released by Capitol Records in North America with the alternate cover.)  My score: A-

19.  Sword – Metalized

swordIf you can’t at least appreciate what Sword was all about then maybe heavy metal isn’t for you.  There were plenty of heavy metal sub-genres that originated in the eighties, including glam, death, thrash, and speed.  But at the beating heart of it all, there was just plain old HEAVY METAL.  And that is where Sword lived — hitting you straight between the eyes.  Some bands lacked talent, so they dressed up all pretty and made pouty, kissy faces.  Not Sword.  Some bands lacked song writing ability, so they played louder and faster to mask their deficiencies.  Not Sword.  Some bands lacked spirit and emotion, so they blinded you instead with technical wizardry.  Not Sword.  Some bands lacked a good singer, so they yelled and growled and feigned “brutality”.  Not Sword.  With Sword, there were no gimmicks, no mascots, no naked chicks on the cover, no pentagrams, no dragons, and no lady clothes.  Sword was a four piece Canadian band with pounding drums, heavy riffs, and the superb testosterone-fueled voice of Rick Hughes.  Metalized was the first of two killer albums by this overlooked quartet.  Should-be classics include F.T.W., Children Of Heaven, Stoned Again, and Stuck In Rock.  Every metal fan should know about Sword.  There were thousands of metal bands that came out in the eighties, and even I (a super-fan) will admit that most of them aren’t worth your time.  Not Sword.  My score: A-

18.  Iron Maiden – Somewhere In Time

Iron MaidenIron Maiden’s Somewhere In Time, in my worthless opinion, falls just a wee bit shy of being a truly ”classic” Iron Maiden album.  I’ll get to the reason why I feel it is flawed a little later.  First, let’s talk up the good things!  Well, I certainly should start with the cover art, which is just an incredible piece of work by the great Derek Riggs.  Tons of detail and tidbits for Iron Maiden fans to enjoy.  Something to be studied with a keen eye (quite possibly while dropping a deuce).  As for the music?  It’s still that same ol’ galloping Iron Maiden we know and love.  You’ve got Bruce Dickinson in top form.  You’ve got that trademark “Rice Krispies” bass playing of Steve Harris (snap, crackle, and pop).  And of course, you’ve got those dual metal axes of Murray and Smith.  It was Adrian Smith who wrote the album’s best track, the amazing Wasted Years.  This is one of the few Iron Maiden songs that can crossover into non-metal circles.  It is just so catchy and immediate, with lyrics that everyone can relate to.  It’s the Iron Maiden song that even your mother might enjoy!  Other faves include Somewhere In Time and Heaven Can Wait (both penned by Harris) and Smith’s Sea Of Madness and Stranger In A Strange Land.  Smith’s writing was much different from Harris’, with more of an emphasis on thick n’ chunky riffs and less upon overactive bass playing and two-guitar harmony parts.  The contrast in styles makes for a pretty well-rounded album.  (Side note: Bruce Dickinson did not have a single writing credit on the album.)

As for the album’s one true flaw?  Somewhere In Time has too much filler.  Now, I’m not talking about filler in the sense of two or three sucky songs that seem like their sole purpose is to fill up any remaining album space.  Somewhere In Time doesn’t have that.  (Every song is good or even great, except maybe The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner, which I don’t care for.)  In this case, I’m talking about the “filler” that seems to have crept its way into almost each and every song.  Let me explain.  You see, almost every song on Somewhere In Time could use a serious edit.  Deleting a few bars here and there would have made such an enormous difference on the album.  Intros seem to go on too long, lead breaks go on too long, harmony sections go on too long.  There just seems to be too much repetition within the songs, which really softens the album’s overall impact.  Eight songs clocking in at over fifty minutes just seems a little too gluttonous.  My score: A-

17.  Europe – The Final Countdown

EuropeLet’s face it, The Final Countdown was pretty much a sell-out album for Europe.  Their first two albums were more of a galloping hard rock that was very (for lack of a better term) European.  For The Final Countdown however, Europe poofed up their locks and cranked up the keyboards as they made a move towards Americanized hair metal.  But something got lost in translation, and the result was an album that encompasses all that was ridiculous and all that was awesome about ’80s rock music.

The iconic title track opens the album.  Oh the majesty!  Say what you will, but I think the track is brilliant.  Joey Tempest has one of the smoothest voices around.  It seems effortless for him.  I’ve seen video of Europe performing live during their tour for this album, and Tempest sounds exactly like he does on the record.  He always stays comfortably within his range and delivers the goods.  Other favorites include Cherokee, On The Loose, and The Time Has Come.  My score: A-

16.  David Lee Roth – Eat ‘Em And Smile

DLRAfter leaving Van Halen, David Lee Roth knew he had to strike while the iron was hot.  And by that, I mean he had to strike before his male pattern baldness really started to show.  (Baldness: life’s cruelest equalizer.)  But seriously, Roth had the wherewithal to know he needed a top-notch band to “compete” with Van Halen.  The war was on (in his mind at least), and DLR needed some heavy artillery.  Enter Steve Vai (guitar), Billy Sheehan (bass), and Gregg Bissonette (drums).  With Vai and Sheehan by his side, Roth’s band was brimming with flashy players who, like the man himself, loved to show off.  This obvious attempt at one-upmanship was a good thing for the fans.  Roth’s first full length LP as a solo artist brought us more of the same DLR we knew and loved; the lounge lizard, the showman, the egomaniac, and the comedian.  The charismatic Roth also (surprisingly) willingly shared the spotlight with Vai and Sheehan, who both had ample opportunity to spray their loads on Eat ‘Em And Smile.  Folks, it doesn’t get any better than the lead cut from Eat ‘Em And Smile, the irresistible and unforgettable Yankee Rose (accompanied by a music video for the ages, for both good and bad).  The Sheehan-penned Shy Boy, and the Roth/Vai composition Goin’ Crazy were also highlights of this fun, party record.  Of course, it wouldn’t be Roth without a bit of tackiness, which is why we have a couple of lounge tunes included for good measure.  My score: A-

15.  Loudness – Lightning Strikes

LoudnessLightning Strikes was this Japanese band’s follow-up to Thunder In The East (1985); Loudness’ first attempt to hit pay dirt in the lucrative U.S. market.  Though Thunder In The East achieved some modest success, I for one think the band deserved better.  Their lack of super-stardom here in the States only adds fuel to my hypothesis that American fans can’t (or won’t) tolerate singers with a strong foreign accent.  (Pretty sad, huh?)  Loudness, of course, featured the great Akira Takasaki on guitar.  He’s on my short list for favorite guitarist ever.  Lightning Strikes (like Thunder In The East) was produced by the master knob goblin himself, Max Norman, so you know it sounds perfect.  Faves on this fine platter include Let It Go, Dark Desire, 1000 Eyes, and resident rubber burner Black Star Oblivion.  Loudness were true pros in every sense of the word!  My score: A-

14.  Sound Barrier – Speed Of Light

Sound BarrierEveryone loves an underdog.  And in the mid-eighties world of heavy metal, it didn’t get any more “underdog” than a band full of black guys!  (Note: although Sound Barrier started off as a truly all-black heavy metal band, by the time Speed Of Light came out in 1986, Sound Barrier consisted of three black guys and a white guy.  Close enough.  Still underdogs in my book.)

After having literally zero commercial success with their major label debut, 1983′s Total Control on MCA Records, Sound Barrier was dropped from the label.  In 1984, Sound Barrier self-released an EP called Born To Rock.  Then, Brian Slagel of Metal Blade Records (and a fan of the band) took a chance on Sound Barrier and signed them to his label.  Speed Of Light was the resultant Metal Blade release.  It was to be Sound Barrier’s final album.

In many ways, Speed Of Light has all the trappings of the typical lower rung Metal Blade release.  The sound is tinny and thin, and the singer ain’t so great.  Is this just another cheap and forgettable scrap metal release from the mid-eighties junkyard?  Not exactly.  After just one or two listens, I started to pick up on something special with Speed Of Light.  Maybe my love of the underdog has swayed my objectivity here?  Could be.  Nevertheless, I have to say I really enjoy this speed metal relic.  Featuring a loose garage sound, lots of frenetic bass playing, and a touch of the progressive, Sound Barrier delivered a winner.  Speed Of Light is an unassuming record with simple but inspiring lyrics (about fighting to reach the top), and a memorable hook in every song.  Faves include Aim For The Top, Gladiator, On The Level (Head Banger), and a cover of Thin Lizzy’s Hollywood (Down On Your Luck) from the oft-forgotten Renegade album.  My score: A-

13.  TT Quick – Metal Of Honor

TT QuickNew Jersey’s TT Quick followed up their stellar debut EP of 1984 with this loud n’ proud full length hardware (Megaforce Records).  The first four tracks on Metal Of Honor are something to behold — a venerable murderer’s row of stainless American steel.  Metal Of Honor, Front Burner, Hard As Rock, and Child Of Sin collectively kick off the album in a no-frills, ballsy style that you’ve just gotta love!  TT Quick spilled lots of blood, sweat, and beer on the East Coast club circuit back in the eighties, and I’m sure it helped shape their tough-as-nails, no bullshit brand of metal.  The first side of Metal Of Honor is so good I just want to crawl inside it and take my pants off.  After Metal Of Honor‘s first four cuts, the album falls back to Earth with a string of so-so, not-as-memorable tunes.  Things end on a high note however, with the album’s stirring finale Siren Song.  Raise a glass to these guys, TT Quick deserve to be remembered.  My score: A-

12.  Veto – Veto

VetoDude, Veto ROCKED!  You may be asking yourself right now, “Who the f*ck is Veto?”.  Well, let me tell ya, Veto was a German band that did what many a German band did in the ’80s; delight your ears with traditional metal awesomeness.  Lots of groove, lots of grit, lots of power, and lots of melody.  The list of such bands is a mile long.  (It usually starts with Accept.)  Veto were just another one of these killer German bands carving out classic metal under a shroud of obscurity.  The album Veto (Scratch Records) was the first of two for Veto (the second was Carthago from 1988).  Highly potent tracks include… well… ALL OF THEM.  Ain’t no time like the present to check out this long forgotten band.  I picked this up on CD as a 2-on-1 disc with Carthago.  It was released by a Mexican label called Blower Records.  Nice!  My score: A-

11.  Tesla – Mechanical Resonance

TeslaIf you haven’t found the time to get into Tesla, you are missing out!  These guys knew how to rock hard.   Mechanical Resonance was the strong debut for Tesla, though a tad frustrating at times.  Mechanical Resonance contains a handful of great Tesla tunes, but also mixes in a couple of turds.  On the awesome side, there is Ez Come Ez Go, Little Suzi, and two of Tesla’s all time best songs in Getting Better and Modern Day Cowboy.  As for the duds, I’ll let you find ‘em.

Tesla, maybe more so than any of the bands associated with the “hair” era, had a more universal hard rock sound.  This, along with the fact that they weren’t at all glam or sleaze, allows them to be taken a little more seriously through history’s lens.  Tesla didn’t do a whole lot to embarrass themselves back in the eighties.  They put together a pretty impressive catalog from 1986-1994, with all of their albums going platinum except for one (which went gold).  It all started here.  I highly recommend this great band!  My score: A-

10.  Tension – Breaking Point

TensionTension!  Take heed all ye fellow treasure hunters out there, Breaking Point is the real deal!

American metal maniacs Tension dropped Breaking Point on unsuspecting skulls in 1986 via the Torrid Record label.  It’s hard to describe Tension’s forceful brand of metal.  Was is thrash?  Speed?  Power metal?  Progressive?  I really don’t know… so let’s just call it AWESOME and be done with it!

This is one of the few albums I have heard that comes close to matching the ferocious, raw, underground mentality of the great Ample Destruction by Jag Panzer (1984).  Tension mercilessly water-boarded poseurs with their architectures of aggression.  Frenetic speed attacks like One Nation Underground and the amazing Wrecking Crew are textbook examples of how to combine tricky, technical playing and irresistible hooks.  Side one of the album is pretty much flawless, with the aforementioned tracks buttressed by the crushing Reach For The Sword and the sinister gem Angels From The Past.

Interestingly, Tension was not at all happy with the album.  They were disappointed in both the production and the art work on Breaking Point.  Tension was right about the art work (boring cover), but I actually love the production on Breaking Point, which really boosts the bass guitar high up in the mix.  As such, we can hear every note that bassist Tim O’Conner played.  As I follow O’Conner’s bass lines, I realize just how quick and nimble one had to be to play bass in a band like Tension.  It makes me appreciate the often overlooked role of the bassist in the world of break-neck metal.  My score: A-

9.  Ozzy Osbourne – The Ultimate Sin

OzzyOzzy!  I’m not sure what to think of Ozzy Osbourne the man, but Ozzy Osbourne the band?  Well that’s just some kick-ass shiznit!  There were several key figures that had a hand in making the Ozzy Osbourne band so great (guys like Randy Rhoads, Bob Daisley, Jake E. Lee, Zakk Wylde, and Ozzy himself).  The Ozzy Osbourne discography of the ’80s stands as one of the best of the decade.

The Ultimate Sin has often been cited as Ozzy Osbourne’s worst album of the ’80s.  Though I agree it is not a perfect album, I still have a very favorable opinion of The Ultimate Sin.  As for flaws, it does seem (at least to these ears) that Ozzy’s performance on this album was less inspired than in previous years, and the glossy production by Ron Nevison (same guy who did KISS’ Crazy Nights in ’87) did not totally suit Ozzy Osbourne’s style.  I often skip two tracks when I listen to The Ultimate Sin, Killer Of Giants and Thank God For The Bomb, leaving seven tracks that I would rate as good or great.  Bassist Phil Soussan was responsible for writing the album’s best song (and biggest hit) Shot In The Dark, a truly memorable tune.  I also really like Lightning Strikes, Secret Loser and Fool Like You.  At the end of the day, Ozzy could always be counted on to deliver a great melody and have a top-notch guitarist by his side (Jake E. Lee on this one).

Sadly, The Ultimate Sin has been unceremoniously “deleted” from the Ozzy catalog.  The last time it was released on CD was in 1995.  Subsequent re-releases and re-packaging of Ozzy music have always omitted this album.  You can still find used copies of the 1995 remaster out there.  Scoop it up.  My score: A-

8.  Metal Church – The Dark

Metal ChurchMetal Church’s sophomore album was another crushing metal beast.  Kicking off with the speed machine Ton Of Bricks (great lyrics!) and closing with the rampaging Western Alliance, The Dark is an album begging to be played at max volume.  This album features Metal Church’s most famous song (I think?), the brooding Watch The Children Pray, as well as my personal favorite Metal Church song (from the David Wayne years, anyway) Method To Your Madness.  It was Ton Of Bricks, however, that actually introduced me to Metal Church as a young, impressionable pre-pubescent.  At that time it was the heaviest song I had ever heard.  To that point in my life, I had been raised by the likes of KISS, Twisted Sister, Quiet Riot and Ozzy (all great, by the way).  But Ton Of Bricks showed me there was an even heavier sound out there.  Faster, louder, and meaner.  My score: A-

7.  Steel Angel – Kiss Of Steel

Steel AngelThis is a little known album out of France.  Steel Angel’s Kiss Of Steel contains some excellent melodic power metal.  I was lucky to stumble across this old relic because it is a helluva gem!  Kiss Of Steel soars on the wings of a mighty vocalist name Pat Monteiro.  Monteiro’s voice reminds me of Rob Halford’s style on early Judas Priest tracks like Island Of Domination.  Kiss Of Steel (released by Sydney Productions) was the second (and last) Steel Angel album.  The album conveys a bright atmosphere, and the songs feel uplifting (even if the lyrics aren’t always so).  For the most part, the riffs aren’t all that tricky, but the leads are pretty nice.  I like the use of vocal layering sometimes used.  Majestic heights are reached with amazing tracks like Pay For All and For The Dawn.  Highly recommended to power metal aficionados.  Pat Monteiro, take a bow!  My score: A

6.  Fifth Angel – Fifth Angel

Fifth AngelQuite possibly the best album to ever come out on Shrapnel Records (IMO) was Fifth Angel’s 1986 debut.  An album so good, in fact, that a major label (Epic Records) signed the band and re-released Fifth Angel in 1988 (with a different cover).  Epic obviously saw some commercial potential in this Washington power metal band (though commercial success never really materialized as hoped).  Fifth Angel’s style of metal was very accessible and ear-friendly.  While quite powerful and epic, Fifth Angel stuck to conventional song structures, with modest drumming and down-to-earth vocals.  Unlike many U.S. power metal bands of the era, Fifth Angel didn’t stretch out into progressive territory, or flirt with thrash.  They also didn’t feature theatrical, wailing vocals like many of their peers.  Ted Pilot’s crisp and clean vocal performance has allowed the Fifth Angel LP to stand the test of time very well.  And since Fifth Angel was originally a Shrapnel release, you can expect some solid axe work — and indeed the album contains several excellent solos.  Faves include Call Out The Warning and Cry Out The Fools.  My score: A

5.  Ratt – Dancing Undercover

RattWith their third full length LP, Ratt solidified the fact that they were a band that could be counted on!  This, despite the band members’ strained relationship with each other — not too surprising given that they were a bunch of hardcore fiends.  Somehow and someway, Ratt managed to keep an electric chemistry with the perils of rock and roll tugging on their collective leash.  Ratt’s first two LPs went triple platinum and double platinum, respectively.  By 1986, Ratt’s popularity began to wane a bit as the sleazy brand of L.A. hard rock they helped pioneer started to flood the market (meaning that Ratt had much more competition in 1986).  And although Dancing Undercover went platinum, I still view it as somewhat of an overlooked gem.  In my worthless opinion, Dancing Undercover is Ratt’s best album!  Admittedly, I’m splitting hairs here, as Ratt’s first three albums are fairly interchangeable in terms of style and substance.  But Dancing Undercover is the one I listen to the most.

With Beau Hill turning the knobs, Dancing Undercover was produced perfectly — yielding maximum groove, swagger, and strut.  Ratt’s rhythm section of Juan Croucier and Bobby Blotzer knew how to lock on to a killer groove and not let go.  Meanwhile, the biting riffs and tasty soloing of Warren DeMartini and Robbin Crosby cut through the speakers like napalm in the jungle.  I love the tone of their guitars — dripping with nastiness!  Sure, vocalist Stephen Pearcy may have been the band’s weak link technically, but it’s hard to imagine Ratt without Pearcy’s one-dimensional singing style.  Lyrically, Pearcy and Ratt were pretty lousy, but we’ll forgive them because they dropped a helluva sleazy payload on our sorry asses here.  Check out white-hot cuts like Dance, Slip Of The Lip and Body Talk for three examples of “classic” Ratt.  I also want to give a shout out to what might be Ratt’s best ever “deep track”, the irresistible Looking For Love.  I know it’s only Ratt n’ roll… but I like it.  My score: A

4.  Fates Warning – Awaken the Guardian

awaken-the-guardianGentleman, start your boners.  If you are a metal fan with a little bit of nerd in you, you’ll probably pitch a pants tent for Fates Warning’s underground fave, Awaken The Guardian.  Though many have tried, few metal bands (in my opinion) have been able to conjure such an overpowering atmosphere of fantasy quite like Fates Warning did with this 1986 LP.  From the cover art, to the lyrics, to the somewhat foggy production, Awaken The Guardian is a long, strange trip to the mysterious nether regions of metaldom.

Progressive metal.  That’s the term now used for an album such as this.  Indeed, to enjoy the album, the listener must progress a little bit with each listen, slowly building an understanding and appreciation for the music.  Training the ears and unraveling the layers… until the brain can, as they say, get it.  Wait, I sound like an asshole.  After all, its only rock n’ roll, or in this case heavy metal, right?  Isn’t heavy metal about rocking out and torching your ear drums and wrecking your neck?  Yeah, most of the time.  99% of the time even.  But here’s something just a bit different, something not as immediate.

When I first listened to Awaken The Guardian I did not like it.  It was my first Fates Warning album.  The thing that turned me off the most was the odd vocal style of John Arch.  It just seemed like too much to digest; the way he fills up all the available space with his kind of meandering, stream of consciousness, verbal diarrhea.  Arch floats atop the music, never really touching down to earth where the more obvious melodies should live.  The second thing that seemed to make the music a bit discombobulated for me was the drumming of Steve Zimmerman.  His playing never settles into a toe-tapping, steady groove.  This, I think, kept my mind from getting a firm grasp on the music… at least upon the first few listens.  Of course, there are also the tempo changes and meter changes to deal with.  (One will find the actual guitar parts themselves are not all that complex.)  Though I did not initially like Awaken The Guardian, I was intrigued enough to keep trying.  Time would pass, I would listen to the album here and there, and then shelve it for a while.  Repeating this process over the course of years lead me to really appreciate and enjoy this album immensely.  It was quite a time investment, but well worth it in the long run, as Awaken The Guardian is truly a unique, and at times, remarkable heavy metal album.  As Arch’s melodies started to make more sense to me, I started to wonder if this guy was in fact a genius.  Were his hyper-geeky fantasy lyrics the words of an honest-to-goodness mystical wizard, or were they the ramblings of some high-horse riding, wannabe scholar with a dictionary and a Dungeons And Dragons game book?  Or… were they just nonsense from the scrambled mind of a guy that was perpetually as high as a f*cking kite?  Maybe a little bit of all three?  But even as I inhaled the vapors of his chemical haze I couldn’t help but be lifted by some of the soaring melodies Arch conjured.  In particular, the chorus to Guardian may just be the greatest thing I have ever heard in song.  Seriously.  This song is an absolute gem!  Probably in my all-time top ten.  Own this album for Guardian alone!  The acoustic intro gives way to a plodding verse that closes with the chill-inducing line; “it was all a dream… an endless dream… ah hah…” as the tempo ascends leading to an emotional chorus that just blows the doors off the place.  I never understood the song’s lyrics until I read an interview with John Arch (here’s the link) where he explained that the song pays tribute to challenged (disabled) people young and old who will never know what it is like to walk, see, or hear.  Given the context, the song takes on a very special meaning, and it only enhances the impact of Guardian for me.

Another exceptional track is the album’s epic closing number, Exodus.  Again, an exquisite chorus highlights this eight and a half-minute masterpiece.  Repeated listens are beneficial and certainly recommended, as the song seems to grow better with time.

Awaken The Guardian is an awesome monument of eighties-era heavy metal.  It is not perfect, and in my mind not yet something I would consider an A+.  (Give me a few years, I may change my mind.)  However, on account of its sheer depth and ability to open the doors to the imagination, I consider Awaken The Guardian to be an essential piece in any serious heavy metal record collection.

Patience is rewarded my friends.  My score: A

3.  Metallica – Master Of Puppets

MetallicaMetallica were reigning heavy metal champions in 1986.  They took the belt from Iron Maiden in 1984 with the release of the masterful Ride The Lightning.  When it came time to defend their championship with a follow-up to Ride The Lightning, Metallica did not fail.  The maintained their dominance with the release of Master Of Puppets, an album often considered the greatest album in the history of heavy metal.  Songs like Battery and Master Of Puppets have grown to legendary proportions — casting a shadow over everything Metallica would do in the nineties and beyond.  A bar set so high, that no mortal band could live up to it.

Though I do love Master Of Puppets, I actually prefer Ride The Lightning, and even … And Justice For All by a slight margin.  The reason being, I suppose, is that side two of Master Of Puppets isn’t something I re-visit as often as the aforementioned albums (except for Leper Messiah, that is).  But I am not one to deny this record’s rightful seat in the throne room of heavy metal’s hallowed halls.  My score: A

2.  Zeno – Zeno

ZenoZeno!  This German band got its name from their guitarist and principal songwriter “Zeno” Roth (brother to Uli Jon Roth).  Zeno released but one album in the 1980s, Zeno (EMI Records).

This is one of those Sunday morning albums.  Obviously, life demands that ’80s hard rock and metal must be played 24/7, but there are times when serenity and tranquility reign over fist-pumping and head banging.  When I need something a little lighter, a little more AOR-ish, my ears beg for Zeno, one of the most majestic and ethereal records of the whole decade.

Although Zeno was not a hit album by any means, a little investigation into the album’s back story reveals that the music industry expected great things from Zeno.  Zeno were the subject of a bidding war amongst labels, and in the end Zeno wound up receiving one of the biggest contracts ever for a brand new band.  But the story gets convoluted, with Zeno taking longer than expected to record and going over budget in the process.  When Zeno was released in 1986, it was viewed as something of a failure with respect to its over-hyped expectations.

The production on Zeno is pin-perfect.  It’s obvious that meticulous attention was paid to capturing a full, rich sound on this record (more than likely the reason Zeno was over-budget).  Roth’s guitar work is exceptional, and his compositions seem to mirror his own reputation as a spiritual and philosophical guy.  The vocals are done by Michael Flexig, a man who sings in an impossibly high register and has the pipes to give credence to these celestial and uber-melodic pieces.  The lyrics are very positive; focusing mostly on love, spirit, and the belief in a higher power.  People, Slayer this ain’t.

Zeno consists of ten proper songs (and one brief instrumental, Sunset).  I would describe nine of the cuts as exceptional or nearly so.  The only song I don’t love is Emergency.  Exquisite cuts like Heart On The Wing, A Little More Love (penned by bassist U. Winsomie Ritgen), and Circles Of Dawn always bring a cheerful smile to my otherwise hideously ugly mug.  A truly great album that flew under the radar.  My score: A+

1.  Van Halen – 5150

Van HalenWhile there are certainly a lot of Van Halen fans that spout none-too-kind words about the Sammy Hagar years, I am not one of them.  5150 is actually my favorite Van Halen album of ‘em all, as well as my favorite album of 1986!  Those unable or unwilling to accept VH without David Lee Roth at the helm are depriving themselves of a fine record of summer time tunes with big hooks, great guitar playing and, yes, great singing by Sammy.  Sure, 5150 is a little heavy on the keyboards, but such was Eddie’s passion at the time.  Whether or not DLR was around, any Van Halen album coming out in 1986 was going to have lots of keys.  Deal with it.  And don’t underestimate EVH’s guitar playing here.  I think a lot of people took Eddie for granted at this point in his career.  To me, that’s a testimony to his greatness.  Faves here include the soaring Dreams, the good time fun of Summer Nights, and my personal favorite of all, the highly underrated title track.  My score: A+   

Go back to the Top Twenty Albums of 1985

DanzigWith Beelzebub riding shotgun, everyone’s favorite juiced-up, demonic lilliputian returned to serenade his acolytes with another album of brooding and crooning.  Lucifuge is Danzig’s best work.  It is the band’s magnum opus!  Though Danzig (1988) was a strong debut album, I will admit that it is a bit sterile sonically.  By contrast, Lucifuge has much more depth and breadth.  Chuck Biscuits opens up a bit on the drum kit, and John Christ is afforded a few more overdubs to beef up his guitar tracks.  Most importantly, Lucifuge features the best vocal performance of Glenn’s storied career.  Subsequent albums would find him losing his range more and more, but Lucifuge is the sound of Glenn at his absolute prime.  He channels Elvis, Morrison, and Orbison via the left hand path.  (Yes, Roy Orbison was still alive in ’90, but you get my point.)

Killer tracks include the sinister opener Long Way Back From Hell and the evil Snakes Of Christ.  I am also partial to Tired Of Being Alive and 777.   Truth is, the only time Lucifuge falters is on its last two tracks — the ordinary Girl and the lousy Pain In The World.  Both sound second-rate compared to the high quality material that precedes them.

The original album cover is depicted above.  It is an obvious reference to The Doors first album.  This was either a direct homage to The Doors, or it was a case of Glenn giving a little wink to all the fans and critics that compared his voice to Jim Morrison over the years.  An alternative cover was used for the CD version of Lucifuge in the U.S. and Canada (see below).

Yes, to be a fan of Danzig means to have to contend with the unintentional hilarity of the whole Danzig persona.  Under scrutiny, it all falls apart like a house of cards.  My advice is to not dig too deep, and just enjoy the ride.  One thing is for certain, Danzig sounded like no other band in the world back in the day.  Glenn certainly carved his own little niche with this creation.  Hey, it was Danzig’s world, we just lived in it.  My score: A

AtlainWhat we have here is a textbook case of mustache metal!  To qualify as mustache metal, your band must meet a few criteria.  First off, you’ll need to be from the mid-eighties.  Second, you must be European.  You’ll also need to play fast, and you’ll need to sing with a thick accent (preferably German).  Next, add just a pinch of melody.  Sprinkle in some light Satanism, and garnish with lousy, ten-cent production values.  Finally, to complete the package, you’ll need a sparse, wispy mustache.  (See pic below.)

Germany’s Atlain debuted in 1984 with Living In The Dark.  All the qualities we know and love about mustache metal were served up on a platter by ol’ Atlain.  Living In The Dark came out on Earthshaker/Mausoleum Records — a hotbed of poorly produced ‘stache metal.  Atlain’s Germanity took care of much of the rest.

Living In The Dark was produced by Axel Thubeauville, a former A&R man for Mausoleum Records (Most notably, he was responsible for ‘discovering’ Warlock and signing them to Mausoleum.)  He was also the founder of Earthshaker Records.  In 1984 he started Earthshaker Records in order to release Steeler’s self-titled debut album.  (Steeler was another band that Axel ‘discovered’.)  However, Earthshaker Records and Mausoleum Records maintained a working partnership.  In fact, Mausoleum re-released Steeler after Thubeauville was unable to successfully market the LP through his own channels.  Earthshaker’s next release was a re-mix of Living Death’s LP, Vengeance Of Hell, which was originally released by Mausoleum.  The next four Earthshaker releases were co-released by Mausoleum.  These albums were Brainfever’s Capture The Night, Fact’s As A Matter Of…, Steeltower’s Night Of The Dog, and Atlain’s Living In The Dark.  So in the early going, it appears that Earthshaker still needed Mausoleum’s help to distribute and market their albums.  Earthshaker went on to release several more albums on their own until 1986.

Living In The Dark starts off promising with Hallowed By The Priest and Living In The Dark.  But after that, the song quality fades fast.  In the end, Living In The Dark is scrappy stuff, but not exactly a lost gem.  My score: C

         LP back cover

LP back cover

Great WhiteUpon first listen, I thought …Twice Shy was a bit toothless.  For sure, the heavy metal leanings of the old Great White (circa 1984) were no more.  By 1989, Great White had transitioned into a much more subtle, blues-based rock band.  Happily, repeated listens of …Twice Shy allowed me to appreciate what Great White had accomplished with this record.  They had mastered the art of the slow burn.  As such, the songs on …Twice Shy have a way of growing on you.  The pulsing bass lines, Mark Kendall’s soft touch, and Jack Russell’s cool delivery all combine for a laid back listening experience.  Not one, but three ballads can be found hiding on …Twice Shy — proof positive that Great White wanted you to marinate in their simmering juices, rather than blast you with a garden hose.

One of my favorite tracks is Hiway Nights (the quintessential slow burner), a song that gave  drummer Audie Desbrow the rare opportunity to blow his percussive load.  This may the be only time on …Twice Shy that anyone in Great White actually breaks a sweat.  The album’s stirring finale is Great White’s calling card, the cover of Once Bitten, Twice Shy.  It’s a great song, and one perfectly executed by Jack and crew.  My score: A

Rage – “Perfect Man” (1988)

RageGermany’s Rage made a few changes for this 1988 LP (Noise Records).  Rage trimmed down to a three-piece band and added a much-needed power metal element to their blurry speed attack on Perfect Man.  The result is a lean and mean record that is sure to please those who prefer a little melody with their methampheta-metal.  Band leader Peter “Peavy” Wagner provided a yelpy vocal performance (he also played bass).  Rage locked in for a furious round of brisk, concise tunes — forsaking fluff and wank for the sake of the song.  Rage gets right to the point on each and every track — and you’ve got to respect their no-bullshit approach.  The album’s absolute high water mark comes by way of the stunning speed metal masterpiece Don’t Fear The Winter — one of the best songs in the genre!  I’m also a huge fan of the (surprisingly) poignant A Pilgrim’s Path.  My score: B+

PoisonPoison was one of those bands that all the chicks loved, and all the guys pretended to hate.  In their prime, Poison was loathed just as much as they were loved.  They were our generation’s Nickleback!

Poison’s best songs were almost exclusively the ones they released as singles.  That is to say, Poison’s albums weren’t exactly overflowing with deep tracks.  Open Up And Say… Ahh!, Poison’s second LP, contained four legitimate hits in Every Rose Has Its Thorn, Fallen Angel, Nothin’ But A Good Time, and Your Mama Don’t Dance.  These are four of the best five tracks on the album.  The fifth, in my opinion, would be Love On The Rocks.  The worst?  Look But You Can’t Touch.  Yikes!  Yes, Poison were easy to hate.  But their music was fun, stupid, and unapologetically glam.  They weren’t trying to write the next Dark Side Of The Moon or Master Of Puppets — and Lord knows they didn’t — they just wanted to party and get laid.  Is that so wrong?

These days, Brett Michaels continues to play Every Rose Has Its Thorn to anyone who will listen, in an attempt to stay relevant.  Why he tries, I have no idea.  He is beyond shameless with his pouty lips, eyeliner, and pathetic wig.  It is sad what it has come to for ol’ Brett, but it’s not like Poison had a legacy to protect.

Do I hate Poison?  Hell no.  In fact, I love the song Fallen Angel more than I care to admit.  And I like Open Up And Say… Ahh! quite a bit, actually.  Hey, it ain’t nothin’ but a good time, so why should I f*cking resist?  My score: A-

Danzig – “Danzig” (1988)

DanzigGlenn Danzig had previously made his name with the low-brow horror punk band Misfits, and the sloppy whatever-you-call-it Samhain before he signed on to Rick Rubin’s Def American record label.  Soon thereafter, the Danzig band was formed.  Though there was some carryover from Samhain (including that kick-ass skull logo), Danzig took a new musical direction — a stripped down brand of evil blues-metal.

With Rubin as producer, Danzig became an ultra-tight war machine on their 1988 debut.  Rubin’s production on Danzig is one of the driest you may ever hear.  It’s completely devoid of oxygen.  This was in stark contrast to Danzig’s previous bands, Misfits and Samhain — both which sounded loose and unrefined.

As a songwriter, Glenn Danzig kept things simple, with entry-level riffs and lots of hanging power chords.  John Christ took care of the guitar duties on Danzig, and his less-is-more approach suited the songs well.  After all, nobody wanted to get in the way of Glenn’s “Satanic Jim Morrison on steroids” vocals, which was the center-point of Danzig.  It’s hard to tell whether Glenn Danzig was (is) completely serious or not with his whole ego-maniacal, tough guy persona.  If it’s a joke, kudos to Glenn for delivering it with a straight face for years and years.  If he’s for real… well, that’s both scary and hilarious.

Obviously, Mother is the standout here.  Just a stone cold classic in my book!  An absolute masterwork by Danzig, and one that proves simple ideas can have a devastating impact.  Other faves include Am I Demon, End Of Time, and Twist Of Cain.  But the whole album is really quite special.  There’s nothing quite like a Danzig album.  Their second, 1990′s Danzig II: Lucifuge, was even better.  My score: A-

Album Reviews (Jan 31, 2014)

Silver Mountain – Roses & Champagne (1988)

Silver MountainSweden’s Silver Mountain released three studio albums in the eighties.  Their best, by far, was 1985′s Universe.  Unfortunately, Silver Mountain’s lineup never really solidified, meaning their small catalog lacks consistency.  1988′s Roses & Champagne features the band’s third singer in as many albums.  Roses & Champagne doesn’t have any extraordinary numbers (although I’m quite fond of Romeo & Juliet).  The album leans a little more commercial than previous efforts — without great success.  Johan Hansson’s fluid, neo-classical guitar work highlights the album.  Still, those curious about Silver Mountain would best be served by tracking down the superb Universe album instead.  My score: C+

Leatherwolf – Leatherwolf EP (1984)

LeatherwolfAs confusing as this may sound, Leatherwolf’s first three records were all called Leatherwolf.  First, this five track EP appeared in 1984 (Tropical Records).  Then, the EP was expanded to a full LP and released as Leatherwolf in 1985 on a few different labels.  (In the U.K. this LP was titled Endangered Species).  Finally, in 1987, Leatherwolf released an album of all new material on Island Records.  Naturally, they called it Leatherwolf!

California’s Leatherwolf were known for their muscular brand of heavy metal, as well as their potent three-guitar attack.  Here, on their debut, we find a band loaded with talent, but yet to master the art of song craft.  Though this EP was probably Leatherwolf’s heaviest record in the eighties, it lacks the focus and depth 1987′s Leatherwolf, or 1989′s Street Ready.  The Leatherwolf EP showcases the band’s guitar-centric approach (not surprising, since there were three guitarist in Leatherwolf’s ranks).  There are plenty of riffs and lead breaks to go around.  Sonically, Leatherwolf put themselves somewhere between the burgeoning thrash scene and the popular L.A. glam metal craze.  Maybe that is why this band sort of slipped through the cracks.  They were too heavy for commercial acceptance, but not thrashy enough for the hardcore headbangers.  Leatherwolf is straight up heavy metal that goes for the throat — much like TT Quick’s debut EP, and Savatage’s The Dungeons Are Calling (both from the same year).  My score: B-

Leatherwolf – Leatherwolf LP (1985)

LeatherwolfAs mentioned above, the Leatherwolf EP was expanded from five to nine songs and released as an LP (with the same cover).  It was released by Steamhammer Records in Europe, Heavy Metal America Records in the U.K. (as Endangered Species), and Tropical Records in the United States.  The four additional tracks were Tonight’s The Night, The Hook, Off The Track, and Vagrant.  Quality-wise, theses tracks were on par with the existing EP material.  No better, no worse.  My fave is The Hook.  My score: B-

 

 

Leatherwolf – Street Ready (1989)

LeatherwolfSkip ahead to 1989.  Leatherwolf’s Street Ready finds the Cali longhairs mixing tempos and moods on this well-rounded platter.  Shades of hair metal peek through on the shout-it-out choruses of Street Ready and Thunder, while the band’s metal acumen shines brightly on Black Knight and Wicked Ways (the album’s clear standout cut).  It’s obvious that Leatherwolf had matured into better songwriters since the days of their debut (see above).  They covered more ground style-wise, and added a touch of commercial accessibility to their sound palette.  Yet, I can’t help but feel that Leatherwolf had the tools to do better.  Street Ready is a solid album, but not an exceptional one.  My score: B

Vio-lence – Eternal Nightmare (1988)

Vio-lenceThis Bay Area thrash album is looked upon with much favor by many an old school thrash fanatic.  My personal opinion of Eternal Nightmare, however, is not so enthusiastic.  The sound here is somewhere between the tech-evil of Forbidden’s first album, and the mallet-headed mosh mayhem of Exodus’ debut.  Thing is, Eternal Nightmare isn’t nearly as entertaining as either of those two albums.  To me, Eternal Nightmare loses its charm after the first two songs — Eternal Nightmare and Serial Killer.  The biggest drawback being the vocals of one Sean Killian.  If I were to pick one word to describe Killian’s vocal performance I guess I would have to go with “annoying”.  My score: C

Ozzy Osbourne – Randy Rhoads Tribute (1987)

OzzyIt’s hard to argue with this live album because the material is drawn from two albums of pure gold.  Tribute includes live versions of all the songs from the Blizzard Of Ozz album, and another two from Diary Of A Madman.  (I wish there were more cuts from Diary Of A Madman, my favorite metal album of the eighties.)  Throw in some ol’ Sabbath tunes — Paranoid (yawn), Iron Man (double yawn) and Children Of The Grave (yay!), and you’ve got yourself a robust package.  All the live cuts are from the early eighties, and feature Randy Rhoads on guitar.  Rhoads, of course, was the legendary Ozzy guitarist who died during the Diary Of A Madman tour.  Rhoads fans will no doubt enjoy Randy’s live performance here.  He dresses up his playing with a more bells and whistles than the studio originals.  This includes an extended solo taken during Suicide Solution.  The album closes with studio outtakes of Rhoads’ classical instrumental piece Dee (from Blizzard Of Ozz).  For his part, Ozzy sounded pretty great live.  He didn’t stray much at all from the studio versions — which is just fine by me.  Tribute was originally issued as a double LP on vinyl.  The cassette and CD versions were single units.  Tribute is as solid as they come as far as live albums go, though I admit I personally prefer studio albums to live albums as a general rule.  My score: A-

Ozzy Osbourne – Just Say Ozzy (1990)

OzzyThis one feels like a contractual obligation.  Just Say Ozzy is a six-track live EP featuring Zakk Wylde on guitar, Randy Castillo on drums, and Geezer Butler on bass.  I’m happy to report that Ozzy’s vocals sound quite good on this record.  Seeing how Ozzy has been a pathetic alcoholic mess his entire life, its surprising how in-tune he was on his old live albums.  (He’s a little flat on War Pigs though.)  The track list?  Three from No Rest For The Wicked, Shot In The Dark from The Ultimate Sin, and two Sabbath cuts.  Zakk tears it up something fierce, giving Randy Rhoads’ performance on Tribute (1987) a serious run for its money.  (I actually think Zakk one-upped Randy!)  I’m not really sure why Just Say Ozzy needed to exist, but hey, its nice to hear Zakk (the master of squealing pinch-harmonics) deliver the goods live.  My score: B+

Laaz Rockit – Annihilation Principle (1989)

Laaz RockitThis one didn’t grab my attention like Laaz Rockit’s previous album, Know Your Enemy (1987).  While Know Your Enemy mixed thrash with a little bit of good ol’ fashion heavy metal, Annihilation Principle is pretty much 100% thrash (except for the snooze-inducing ballad The Omen).  Though Laaz Rockit were still a notch above the riff raff in the thrash world, I think they lost a bit of their charm here.  A little more variety would have been nice.  Still, a couple of cool cuts stick out — Fire In The Hole and Holiday In Cambodia (a Dead Kennedys cover).  My score: C+

 

Firehouse – Firehouse (1990)

FirehouseTo me, Firehouse’s first album reminds me a lot of Slaughter’s debut.  Both came out in 1990.  The two albums were similar in both approach and presentation.  Both are undeniably corporate records, yet neither insult the listener’s intelligence with shameless pandering.  These were professionals at work, consciously trying to make each and every song on the album a potential radio single.  (Yes folks, in 1990 they actually played rock on the radio!  You could make money playing an instrument!)

This is good old fashion hard rock with a pop twist.  Just try to resist the effervescent sweetness of All The Wrote or, my favorite, Don’t Treat Me Bad.  And while Love Of A Lifetime isn’t one of my favorite power ballads, you’ve got to appreciate Firehouse’s foresight.  They must have known that Love Of A Lifetime would live on indefinitely — at wedding receptions.  My score: B+

Nuclear Assault – Game Over (1986)

Nuclear AssaultEast Coast thrashers Nuclear Assault debuted in 1986 on Combat Records with this frenzied piece of NY blitzcore.  Nuclear Assault were one of those bands vying for the “more-thrash-than-you” championship belt.  To those of us with somewhat broader expectations for our music-listening experience, this album doesn’t do a whole hell of a lot to scratch that itch.  I suggest moving past this album, as well as the similar sounding follow-up EP The Plague (1987), and on to Nuclear Assault’s much-improved 1988 release Survive.  My score: C

 

Testament – Souls Of Black (1990)

TestamentTestament’s fourth studio album (in four years) comes with no surprises.  Without a single new or original idea to offer, Souls Of Black is mired in stagnant waters.  This album is wholly average in every conceivable way (except for Alex Skolnick‘s tasty soloing).  I really can find no reason to keep Souls Of Black in rotation.  My score: C

 

 

 

 

 

 

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