Bonfire – “Fireworks” (1987)

BonfireSeemingly only to confuse your trusty reviewer, Bonfire’s 1987 album was released with at least three different covers (and as both Fire Works and Fireworks).  This Michael Wagener-produced banquet sauntered down the same well-worn path first blazed by its lusty predecessor Don’t Touch The Light (1986).  Although Fireworks is not as heavy.  Or as good.  It also leans a little more towards American glam than Don’t Touch The Light.  I guess you could say that Bonfire were one of the few German “hair” bands, although their “nice guy” lyrics didn’t really put them in the same company as those “bad boy” poodle-heads outta Hollywood.  Like Don’t Touch The Light, Fireworks is flush with melody — keyboards and big vocal harmonies being key ingredients to Bonfire’s confectionery cooking.  Note: Ken Mary guests on drums — yet another stop on Ken’s quest to be part of every band that ever existed.  (Somewhere, Rudy Sarzo is proudly nodding his head.)  My score: B

Y&T – “Ten” (1990)

Y&TI’ll always have a soft spot for Y&T.  They were one of the few American bands that rocked hard in the very early eighties.  Those were some lean years in the States.  Y&T deserve our respect.  It was during those wasted days that Y&T were at their ballsy best.  Earthshaker (1981), Black Tiger (1982), and Meanstreak (1983) were all “classic” Y&T hardwares.  But luck was never really on Y&T’s side.  Nope, for them Lady Luck was nothing but a disease-ridden whore.  Though Y&T were on the brink of a breakthrough a few times, they never really busted out.  By the time of 1987’s Contagious album, Y&T were desperately trying to hang on.  Their attempt at dumbed-down party rock was a wild swing and a miss.  Contagious was, for all intents and purposes, an embarrassment.  At least 1990’s Ten (Geffen Records) saw them correct the ship (a little).  Ten was certainly no Black Tiger, but at least Y&T could show their faces in public again.  My score: C+

Grim Reaper – “Rock You To Hell” (1987)

Grim ReaperGrim Reaper’s third and final album here.  The cover is another grisly illustration by the late, great metal aficionado Gary Sharpe-Young (look him up).  As for the album, Rock You To Hell was produced by one of the best in the biz, Max Norman.  Max was able to wash off the layer of grime that weighed down Grim Reaper’s two previous albums (in terms of audio quality) — giving Grim Reaper the top-notch production they richly deserved.

Okay, can we talk for a minute about Steve Grimmett?  I mean, this guy is so underrated that it hurts!  It literally causes me pain.  Sure, Grimmett was a strange looking dude.  He was a bit on the heavy side, with one of the most BOSS mullets of all time.  (It HAD to be wig or extensions.)  And Steve had a space between his front teeth you could drive a truck through.  But DAMN, he could sing like a mother f*cker.  He may very well have had the most powerful set of pipes in all metal, period.

A toast.  To Steve.  Shine on, you crazy diamond!

Anyhoo… Rock You To Hell is a really great, really FUN album.  Every song is brimming with unbridled energy.  I must confess I have been guilty of overlooking Grim Reaper in the past… but no longer.  Recently I stumbled across this old video of Grim Reaper absolutely SLAYING a live performance in Minneapolis (1987).  It originally aired on Halloween night on MTV, I do believe.  I was forever converted to a Grim Reaper fan when I saw the video.  DAMN, they sounded great live!  Check out guitarist Nick Bowcott’s tasty guitar work!  And believe you me, Grimmett delivered the goods in person.  He wasn’t one these guys who sounded great in the studio, but sucked live.  Nope.  Check out his scream at the end of See You In Hell at the 31:00 minute mark.  It nearly kills him.  That’s metal folks… that’s metal.  My score: A

Obsession – “Methods Of Madness” (1987)

ObsessionI’m not sure about that cover, boyz.  Nothing says “metal” like an 8th grade science teacher!  Anyway… Obsession (like Liege Lord and Fates Warning) were a metal band out of Connecticut (my neck of the woods).  They were one of the numerous American bands churning out convincing “traditional” metal circa 1987.  It’s hard to turn your nose up at this stuff because it adheres so faithfully to the metal tenements we’ve all come to know and love — razor-sharp riffs, twin leads, and screaming vocals.  It’s a time-worn formula that Judas Priest perfected in the late seventies, and Obsession was carrying that torch with pride in ’87.  In particular, the golden pipes of vocalist Mike Vescera really helped Obsession standout from the fray.  Sure, Vescera isn’t exactly a household name, but he has amassed quite a resume over the years — a testament to his talents.  One of the things I really like about his work on Methods Of Madness is his effective use of two-part harmonies on certain vocal parts.  These overdubbed, high harmonies really give the songs that extra punch.  Choice cuts: For The Love Of Money and Killer Elite.  My score: B

Pantera – “Cowboys From Hell” (1990)

PanteraWhen you listen to as much 80’s metal as I do, you really can appreciate just how different Cowboys From Hell was from all the other metal out there at the time.  Though Pantera had experimented with different styles on 1988’s Power Metal LP, they didn’t really find their sonic identity until Cowboys From Hell.  “Diamond” Darrell Abbott’s syncopated, percussive riffing style carved out the blueprint for what has come to be known as “groove metal”.  Pantera were definitely pioneers in this genre (though some site Exhorder’s Slaughter In The Vatican as the first true groove metal album).  Darrell’s brazen, chromatic soloing and Phil Anselmo’s rebellious, belligerent singing style were also key to Pantera’s trademark, abrasive new sound.

Side note: Though Darrell became a bona fide guitar hero for his inventive playing style, it is ironic that he and Pantera (unknowingly) helped launch the metal movement that almost killed the “guitar hero”.  Pantera’s style was at least partially responsible for the flood of “nu metal” bands that became popular in the late nineties.  Bands like Limp Bizkit, Korn, and Disturbed used syncopated riff styles similar to those which Pantera used.  Nu metal bands also relied heavily on drop tunings (often allowing riffs to be played with one finger).  Needless to say, some viewed this guitar style as a crutch for “inferior” guitarists.  The downplaying (or complete omission) of solos by nu metal guitarists didn’t help matters.  For many, nu metal is viewed as a black mark on metal’s good name.  I just find it weird that one of metal’s most creative guitarists helped influence one of metal’s least creative metal sub-genres!  (By the way, it should be noted that almost all the songs on Cowboys From Hell are in standard tuning, though subsequent Pantera albums incorporated a lot of drop tuning.)

All that being said, I must confess I do not think Cowboys From Hell is a great album.  Yes, I think Pantera found their sound and their ‘tude on Cowboys From Hell, but they were still lacking when it came to song craft.  It wasn’t until 1992’s Vulgar Display Of Power that Pantera had the songs to really blow people away.  Side two of Cowboys From Hell is particularly weak.  There are a two very important exceptions however.  First, album opener Cowboys From Hell is a boot in the ass — a statement of purpose that has become a Pantera “classic”.  Justly so, as Cowboys From Hell will rip ya from tits to taint!  My personal fave, however, is another Pantera “classic” — Cemetery Gates.  This really is a perfect song.  The soft-to-heavy dynamics, the lyrics, and the vocal performance are all spot on.  Amazing tune!  My score: B-

Helix – “Wild In The Streets” (1987)

HelixHelix is like that cheap beer your Dad used to drink.  It may not be the most carefully crafted brew around, but it’ll get you drunk just the same.  So let Helix be your case of Schlitz tonight.  At least you know what to expect when you tear into a Helix record — flop sweat and raunch n’ roll.  1987’s Wild In The Streets may not be Helix’s best album (I prefer 1983’s No Rest For The Wicked and 1984’s Walkin’ The Razor’s Edge for my Helix fix), but it’ll do in a pinch.  Plus, you’ve just got to love charismatic Helix front man Brian Vollmer.  Brian is like that crazy uncle your Mom told you to stay away from when you were a kid.  A “bad influence”, she said.  You know the one.  He would tell dirty jokes and let you drink some of his beer on the sly.  Of course, years later you found out your favorite uncle wasn’t so much funny as he was a hopeless alcoholic with a gambling problem.  But I digress…

Heck, it isn’t all that complicated.  Simply put, Brain and Helix just wanted to rock you.  So let ‘em rock you.  It’s not like you have anything better to do.  My score: B

Chastain – “The 7th Of Never” (1987)

ChastainThis is the third album from Chastain (Leviathan Records).  The band took its name from guitarist and principal songwriter David T. Chastain.  This was really more of a studio project than a true band.  In fact, the guitars, the drums, and the vocals weren’t even recorded in the same zip code.  Vocals were provided (in savage fashion) by a lioness named Leather Leone.  One can’t question Leone’s intensity, that’s for sure.  Ol’ Leather may have been partaking in a little bit of that booger sugar in the studio, because she sounds sufficiently coked-up.  Who knows, and who cares.  Unfortunately, poor production hasn’t helped The 7th Of Never to age well.  Ken Mary’s drums are way too loud in the mix, and worse yet, they sound like someone jiggling a bag of cutlery.  I’m pretty sure his snare drum was actually a pie tin.  As for David T. Chastain, he was the typical Shrapnel-style shredder.  (In fact, Chastain’s first two albums came out on Shrapnel Records.  The band was actually built around David by Shrapnel head Mike Varney.)  Anywayz, David unloads a fair share of fast flourishes here, sometimes in the neo-classical style of Yngwie.  But like Yngwie, his solos don’t have much to say.  Just lots and lots of notes.  My favorite song on The 7th Of Never is We Must Carry On.  My score: C+

Kane Roberts – “Kane Roberts” (1987)

Kane RobertsSome of you may remember Kane Roberts as the musclebound guitarist for Alice Cooper’s band in the mid eighties.  He looked just like Rambo and toted around a custom-made M-60 machine gun guitar.  (Only in the 80’s, eh?)  Well, Kane was able to parlay that bit of notoriety into a record deal with MCA.  His first album was this self-titled nugget.  The cover, as you can plainly see, is cheese city.  But the music itself may surprise you.  Yes, Roberts was able to weave a delicate tapestry of sounds on this album — molding his euphonious ideas into a cohesive work of art that was at once soul crushing and intellectually stimulating.  One marvels at the beauty Roberts created — crafting this rich opus in much the same way he crafted his symmetrically chiseled frame.  Behold, for to listen to Kane Roberts is to fall headlong into a world of mystery and splendor!

I’m just kidding.  It’s crap.  My score: D

Savatage – “Hall Of The Mountain King” (1987)

SavatageSavatage released six records in the 80’s.  If you can only have one, make it Hall Of The Mountain King.  The album features some of Savatage’s best songs including 24 Hrs. Ago, Strange Wings, Hall Of The Mountain King, and my personal fave… Legions!  The brothers Oliva were at the top of their game for Hall Of The Mountain King.  Jon’s mouth of madness unleashed a vocal performance straight from hell, while Criss’ heavy riffing cut through the air like napalm.  Criss was always a master riffsmith, and had one of the best guitar tones in metal.  He used a lot of drop tuning to get a dark, bottom heavy sound out of his axe.  Add to that the perfect blend of overdrive and delay, and you’ve got yourself a legendary crunch.

Hall Of The Mountain King marked the first time Savatage worked with producer and collaborator Paul O’Neil.  Eventually, the partnership took Savatage’s sound into a new direction for the 90’s.  But never you mind, because back on Hall Of The Mountain King, the ‘Tage was still pouring hot metal into a bubbling cauldron of awesome.

Note: The late, great Ray Gillen contributed backing vocals on Strange Wings.  He was rewarded for his service by having his name misspelled in the liner notes.  My score: A

Fifth Angel – “Time Will Tell” (1989)

Fifth AngelWith a new lead guitarist in tow, Fifth Angel returned in 1989 with the follow-up to their stellar eponymous debut (1986).  But it pains me to say that I can’t get behind Time Will Tell with the same enthusiasm I had for Fifth Angel.  Though the guitar playing is excellent, the songs themselves suffer from generic, weak choruses.  These choruses go nowhere, no matter how many times they are repeated (re: Broken Promises).  The songwriting is just not on point.  Time Will Tell (Epic Records) wasn’t exactly a timely follow-up to Fifth Angel, and I wonder if the wind was knocked out of Fifth Angel’s sails by the time Time Will Tell came around.  I’m just not feeling the same hunger in these songs.  Take for example the song Seven Hours.  To me, it almost seems that vocalist Ted Pilot hadn’t adequately rehearsed the song.  On the verses, he sounds unsure in his delivery.  To be honest, it sounds like Pilot is reading the lyrics from a piece of paper for the first time!  (Of course, I could be WAY off here.)  The most disappointing song on the album is Feel The Heat — a catchy song absolutely RUINED by terrible lyrics.

Note: Ken Mary, who played drums on the debut, is not billed as an official member of Fifth Angel for Time Will Tell.  Though he does play drums on the album, he was actually an official member of House Of Lords at the time.  My score: C+