Billy Squier – “Signs Of Life” (1984)

billy-squier1984 was a good year.  I turned seven years old in 1984.  I was at the age where a boy starts to become more aware of what is going on around him in terms of pop culture.  Things started affecting me in a lasting, meaningful way.  I started to form interests that would last all my life.  Before 1984, I was a lump of clay.  During 1984, at age seven, the molding process began.  Seven is a strange age, you know.  Too old to eat paste.  Too young to sniff glue.  Adhesives are not a factor when you are seven.

I remember lots of cool things from 1984.  I remember the 1984 summer Olympics in Los Angeles.  The U.S. cleaned house because the Russians were a no-show.  I remember lots of free Cokes, fries, and Big Macs because of McDonald’s Olympics scratch ticket promotion — a promotion that turned out to be a marketing disaster for McDonald’s, but a major windfall for the rest of us.  I remember both Gremlins and Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom came out in the theaters.  I wasn’t allowed to see either.  I remember Yankee first baseman Don Mattingly won the batting title and became my hero.  I also remember really getting interested in music.  I listened to the radio and followed the charts.  I was into Twisted Sister, The Cars, and Weird Al.  We didn’t have MTV in my house in 1984, so the only music videos I saw were from NBC’s Friday Night Videos.  My mother would tape the episodes on VHS because my brothers and I weren’t allowed to stay up late to watch them when they aired.  Music videos were really becoming HUGE!

In 1984, a music video ruined Billy Squier’s life.  (Or so the story goes…)

I remember loving the song Rock Me Tonite in 1984.  It was a great single.  I am pretty sure I saw the video for it at the time, too.  It may have been on one of those Friday Night Videos tapes.  But the video didn’t really affect me.  I was seven.  I thought all videos were cool.

Billy Squier truly believes that his infamous video for Rock Me Tonite derailed his career.  Prior to the video, Billy was doing fabulous.  He was a multi-platinum artist and an arena headliner.  But the video for Rock Me Tonite stopped Squier’s career in its tracks  — at least that’s what Billy says.  Listen to Squier’s side of the story here.  He said he went from playing full houses in arenas to half-empty shows literally overnight (after MTV premiered the video for Rock Me Tonite).  Want to see the video?  Feast your eyes on THIS!  It is a video that is so spectacularly bad that I can’t believe it exists.  In 1984, rock fans were not ready for something quite this gay from Billy Squier.  Apparently they deserted him in droves.  Signs Of Life still ended up going platinum, but it would be the last platinum (or even gold) record of Squier’s career.

Signs Of Life is a fine album.  It’s not as good as Billy Squier’s star-making, triple platinum smash Don’t Say No (1981), but I think it’s better than 1982’s Emotion In Motion.  But be warned all ye hard rockers — Signs Of Life is not really hard rock.  It is more like pop rock.  This was a direct result of the flashy production job by Squier and Jim Steinman (of Meat Loaf fame).  The guitar riffs are there, but they’ve been crowded out by lots and lots of synths.  There’s also a myriad of strange percussion, samples, and sound effects.  This was largely the case with Emotions In Motion, too.  Any hard rock edge the songs may have had got polished down to a shiny nub.  Normally I would be turned off by all the pop tricks used by Billy, but I really don’t mind it so much in this case.  That may be because I have a biased, soft-spot for Billy Squier.  But a case could also be made that the songs are just damn good.  Get past the superfluous pop schmear that coats the songs and I think you’ve got some good material to work with ear-wise.  If nothing else, all the techno-pop bells and whistles make for an interesting headphone listen.

Signs Of Life spawned three singles.  The aforementioned Rock Me Tonite was the biggest hit.  Two other strong choices followed in All Night Long and Eye On You (neither were hits — possibly in part due to the Rock Me Tonite video debacle).  I like all three songs a lot.  The formula worked — big beats, big hooks, ragged guitar riffs, and Billy’s great voice.  And you can dance to ’em!  (Not that I care to — but the option is there.)  Another gem on Signs Of Life is the last song — called Sweet Release.  This is one of the best “deep tracks” in Squier’s catalog.

One last thing.  Just how is it that poor Billy was crucified for his Rock Me Tonite video while these guys got a free pass?  My score: A-

 

 

Top Ten Thrash Metal Albums of 1987

Here are my favorite thrash albums of 1987…

10. Metallica – The $5.98 EP – Garage Days Re-Revisited

As you can tell by the not-so-serious cover, Metallica were just having a little fun with this EP of cover songs.  Diamond Head, Holocaust, Killing Joke, Budgie and Misfits were all given the Metallica treatment.

A crushing version of Diamond Head’s Helpless opens the record, and it is far better than the original.  This would be Metallica’s second time recording a cover of the forgotten NWOBHMers.  They covered Diamond Head’s best song Am I Evil? for the original “Garage Days Revisited” on the B-side to their Creeping Death single/EP (more info on that record is here).  The inclusion of Misfit’s Last Caress is another highlight.  This song is hilarious for its alarmingly crass lyrics. “I’ve got something to say, I killed your baby today!”  You get the idea.

The 5.98 EP – Garage Days Re-Revisited introduced Metallica fans to new bassist Jason Newsted and also gave them some homework to do — get out and find the original records from the influential bands covered.  These were bands that many Metallica fans had little to any knowledge of at the time.  Diamond Head and Misfits seemed to get the biggest “bump” from the free publicity offered by Metallica.  Note: The CD version was titled The 9.98 EP – Garage Days Re-Revisited.  My score: B

9. Testament – The Legacy

I own Testament’s first four albums, and except for The Legacy, I’m pretty much indifferent to them all.  The Legacy is the exception!  The album boasts almost all of my favorite Testament songs from their early days.  To my ears, The Legacy has more much energy than the albums that followed.  It’s got better ideas and stronger hooks.  The guitar duo of Alex Skolnick and Eric Peterson used their fast pick hands to carve out potent thrash riffs while Chuck Billy provided his constipated, humorless vocals on top.  With this well-received debut, Testament established themselves as arguably the most popular “second wave” thrash band of the decade.  My score: B

8. Artillery – Terror Squad

Highlighted by its bone-crushing title track, Artillery’s Terror Squad hits harder than a sledgehammer to the nut sack!

Terror Squad was Artillery’s second LP.  Besides housing the incredible title track, this record pours on the heat with plenty of churning, grinding and chopped up riffs n’ rhythms.  Singer Flemming Ronsdorf screams and hollers above the thrash madness like a rabid animal.  Artillery didn’t rely on speed as much as many of their Euro-thrash compatriots.  Instead, they used a mid-paced crunch that allowed their thick riffage and heavy bottom end to penetrate the skull.  The hostilities commence with the hard-hitting In The Trash.  Eight more cuts follow — each a grenade lobbed right into your defenseless lap.  Artillery close the show with Decapitations Of Deviants, a song which contains the great lyric: “when shit turns to gold, the poor will be born without ass!”  Eat your heart out Bill Shakespeare!  My score: B

7. Laaz Rockit – Know Your Enemy

Laaz RockitAfter releasing two lightly regarded albums for the Target Records label, Laaz Rockit moved over to Enigma Records for their third outing, Know Your Enemy.  Here, Laaz Rockit joined ranks with their Bay Area neighbors among the thrash contingent. Even though almost every song on Know Your Enemy is about the world going to hell in a hand basket, the album manages to be a fun one.  The songs breathe, the singer is decent, and the hooks are fairly catchy.  In many ways, Laaz Rockit remind me of East Coast bands like Anthrax and Nuclear Assault more than Bay Area bands like Metallica and Testament.  It’s good to have a little light to shine through the often smothering thrash abyss. Last Breath, Most Dangerous Game, and Self Destruct are my favorites.  My score: B

6. Death Angel – The Ultra-Violence

Through metal history’s lens, Death Angel sit perched somewhere near the top of thrash’s second generation.  They were not innovators like the first generation, but they made their mark with this energetic thrash album that arrived smack in the middle of the genre’s salad days.

Though Death Angel would expand their musical style in subsequent releases (for better or worse), their debut The Ultra-Violence (released by Enigma Records) is straightforward, pure thrash.  It’s hard, fast, and loose.  Likely due to a lack of money and time, the final product is raw and imperfect.  It sounds as if the boys (just teens at the time) just plugged in and let it rip.  That’s a dangerous game to play — the end product could have ended up a sloppy mess.  But Death Angel had all the intangibles in place, and The Ultra-Violence captures a perfect moment where unhinged enthusiasm and burgeoning talent collide.  The opening track, the aptly titled Thrashers would not seem out of place on Exodus’ Bonded By Blood.  Three more good tracks follow — Evil Priest, Voracious Souls, and Kill As One.  Each will light you up like Christmas!  Onto side two, things gets bogged down by an excessively long instrumental and a few songs that don’t really come together all that well.  Death Angel had plenty of riffs to go around but weren’t really mature song writers (can’t really blame them, they were so young).  When all is said and done it is the high-voltage performances and the band’s sincere commitment to thrash that make The Ultra-Violence as well-regarded as it is.  My score: B

5. Tankard – Chemical Invasion

TankardI like my booze.  But it’s not like it’s my religion or anything.  Tankard on the other hand?  They were committed to the booze 100%.  Nobody could extol the virtues of alcoholism quite like ol’ Tankard.  They pay homage to their favorite elixir with high-speed, spastic songs that flare up like hemorrhoids.  But unlike many thrash tunes which are no more than a patchwork of different riffs, Tankard managed to craft actual songs with good transitions, proper continuity and a sense of resolution.  The frenzy is brought to the brink of collapse by the berserk vocals of “Gerre”.   Drunken wisdom indeed!  When he’s not railing on about alcohol (and cocaine, can’t forget cocaine) Gerre attacks other important issues such as metal posers in Traitor (the best song on the album) and no-good, dirty whores in Farewell To A Slut.  My score: B

4. Heathen – Breaking The Silence

Another Bay Area thrash debut to add to this list.  Though Heathen weren’t the best known band from the region, they were responsible for one of the best albums from the scene.  Breaking The Silence was Heathen’s ’87 debut (Combat Records).  Crisp playing, quality production, and memorable hooks were delivered with both power and finesse by this talented five-piece.

Breaking The Silence opens with its best three tracks right in a row — Death By Hanging , Goblins Blade, and Open The Grave.  Side two takes a slight downturn in quality, though the cover of Set Me Free (by Sweet) is another standout track.

Unfortunately, Heathen failed to deliver a timely follow-up to this solid debut.  Their inability to maintain a stable line-up as well as money woes kept them in purgatory until 1991, when their belated sophomore effort finally arrived.  Those were some prime thrash years that Heathen missed out on.  Perhaps Heathen would have built a bigger legacy if they had been able to hold it together and release more material.  My score: B+

3. Overkill – Taking Over

With the momentum of a wrecking ball in full swing, Overkill annihilated posers with their second LP Taking Over.  Overkill were a remarkably consistent band.  They could always be counted on to shove quality metal up your ass sideways.  Taking Over ain’t no different.  I consider two cuts on Taking Over to be excellent — Deny The Cross and Wrecking Crew.  Both hit like a freight train as they impact your pathetic skull.  Overkill always had a way of injecting their music with plenty of snot-nosed, punkish ‘tude.  They commanded respect!  It’s criminal that Overkill didn’t achieve the commercial success that they deserved.  My score: B+

 2. Accu§er – The Conviction

The Conviction (Atom H Records) was the debut album from the German band Accu§er.  Though not a very well-known act, Accu§er have been around for quite some time — having released nine more full-length albums and a couple of EPs since this debut offering.

I am really surprised I like this album.  The Conviction possesses three traits that usually turn me off from a thrash album — harsh vocals, minimal melody, and a few really long songs.  But for me, The Conviction is the exception to the rule.  What makes this so, in my opinion, is the preponderance of sharp, biting riffs executed to perfection at (mostly) high speeds by Frank Thoms.  The dry mix also helps matters.  The fidelity is such that you can pick out each instrument and zero in on what each player is doing.  The vocals of Eberhard Weyel are grim but clear.  You can understand the lyrics even though he discharges his vocals through curt, ornery barks.  Though not very melodic, Weyel does each song justice through good timing and subtle inflections.  At the end of the day, The Conviction will leave you with bloodshot eyes, a sore neck, and a kicked ass!  My score: B+

1. Anthrax – Among The Living

For my money, Among The Living is the best Anthrax album of ’em all!  Coming off the successful Spreading The Disease LP of 1985, Anthrax cemented their status as heavyweights in the world of thrash with this 1987 classic.  Anthrax were easy to like (IMO) because they were not afraid to show their sense of humor or reveal their inner-geek.  Lyrics on Among The Living take their themes from comics (I Am The Law), as well as Stephen King fiction (Among The Living and A Skeleton In The Closet).  Other interesting topics include the drug-fueled downward spiral of John Belushi’s last days, and the plight of the Native Americans (a matter also tackled by Iron Maiden, Europe, and others).  Anthrax’s lyrical subject matter wasn’t the only thing that made them stand out.  They also had one of the only legit “singers” in thrash at the time (Joey Belladonna), as well as one of the best drummers in the biz (Charlie Benante).  All of it was held together by guitarist and brain-trust, Scott Ian.  Favorites include Among The Living, Caught In A Mosh, and Indians.  My score: A+ 

Blackfoot – “Siogo” (1983)

BlackfootBlackfoot were a ramblin’ band out of Jacksonville, Florida.  They were fronted by the wild-eyed Rickey Medlocke.  Blackfoot reached their commercial peak with the ’79 album Strikes (now certified platinum).  But the two studio albums that followed — the excellent Tomcattin’ (1980) and the solid Marauder (1981) saw the band’s sales decline.  Southern rock was considered all but dead by those who considered such things for the rest of us.  Blackfoot (an especially hard rockin’ Southern rock band) needed to adapt or die.  They added keyboardist Ken Hensley (ex-Uriah Heep) to help bring the Blackfoot sound into the eighties.  With Hensley in the mix and label pressure to deliver a more commercially viable record, Blackfoot wound up loosing a little of their edge and quite a bit of their southern flavor on Siogo.  Nevertheless, Rickey and the boys were still cooking with some fire, and Siogo (which is an acronym for “suck it or get out”) wound up being a pretty serviceable Blackfoot record.  Now let’s not get crazy, as nothing here matches the majestic heights of past Blackfoot gems like Warped, Good Morning, or Every Man Should Know (Queenie), but Siogo will still do in a pinch.  Unfortunately Siogo failed commercially and Blackfoot (and their label) went into full-on panic mode for its follow-up Vertical Smiles (1984).  My score: B

Blackfoot – “Vertical Smiles” (1984)

blackfootBlackfoot were in a tough situation in 1984.  Despite the quality hard rock they had been making, the commercial success was just not there.  Desperation and pressure from their label (Atco Records) were likely responsible for Vertical Smiles — an album that sounded nothing like the Blackfoot of old.  Their southern rock mojo went out the window, and it was replaced with overly-simplified pop rock.  Poor Blackfoot.  They basically had to undergo a complete musical lobotomy to make themselves stupider.  The drumming and guitar playing on this album are far below Blackfoot standards.  It’s sad they had to dumb everything down to try and survive.  This album was a “Hail Mary” pass that landed incomplete.  Vertical Smiles was a critical and commercial bomb that lead to the break-up of (the original) Blackfoot.

Is Vertical Smiles as bad as they say?  Well, if you’re expecting a Blackfoot album — the answer is probably “yes”.  But let’s pretend the name on the album cover isn’t Blackfoot.  Let’s pretend the album was a one-off by some other band and try to wrap our heads around Vertical Smiles from an objective angle.  While overall Vertical Smiles is rather dull and stiff, there are a couple of positives to take home.  First of all, the vocals of Rickey Medlocke are good — as usual.  That aspect remains.  Second, there are some good, summertime melodies to be found (re: A Legend Never Dies).  It’s too bad the melodies are obscured by grooveless drums and a wall of keyboard lameness.  All in all, I would call Vertical Smiles passable, but not optimal.  My score: B-  

Vixen – “Vixen” (1988)

vixenVixen were a four-piece, all female band that were marketed as part of the L.A. glam metal contingent.  But in all honestly, Vixen’s eponymous debut was nothing more than a watered-down pop album dressed in glam gear.  Hair for miles on these ladies!  A scan of the liner notes of Vixen (EMI Records) reveals that Vixen had A LOT of help with this album.  In fact, the whole thing is pretty much a corporate sham.  There were four producers and fifteen outside writers credited on Vixen.  FIFTEEN!  And even though keyboards make up a major part of the Vixen sound, nobody is credited with keyboards in the liner notes.

Vixen was a success.  The album went gold thanks to its primary hit Edge Of A Broken Heart (written by Richard Marx and Fee Waybill) and secondary hit Cryin’ (written by Gregg Tripp and Jeff Paris).  To me, Edge Of A Broken Heart is a really great pop song and is the major highlight on what is otherwise a fairly average collection of tunes.

Even though the ladies of Vixen wound up being little more than a glorified cover band (and the pretty face fronting a manufactured record company puppet show) they still had to execute the songs.  They toured in support of the album as an opening act for Scorpions, Ozzy, and others.  Form what I have heard and seen, Vixen held their own on stage.  I’m sure that the band members would have wanted more creative control on Vixen, but I guess you can’t argue with the album’s success.  My score: B-

Vixen – “Rev It Up” (1990)

vixenUnlike on their debut album Vixen (1988), the ladies of Vixen wrote the majority of the songs on their second record Rev It Up.  They kept true to the formula of the debut — that being tepid, rock-lite for mainstream radio consumption.  Nothing wrong with that.  Unfortunately, Vixen didn’t really come up with any real winners when it came to songwriting on Rev It Up and the album failed to live up to the sales amassed by 1988’s Vixen.  Aside from the novelty factor of being an all-female “glam metal” band, Vixen weren’t all that memorable.  I will say this, however — Janet Gardner was a good singer.  After Rev It Up, Vixen broke up.  My score: C

Triumph – “Progressions Of Power” (1980)

TriumphTriumph were a Canadian rock institution in the late seventies and throughout the eighties.  For Triumph, success was hard-earned.  They were renown for their live act most of all — although they did have a handful of moderately successful FM radio hits.  All the while it seems that Triumph lived in the shadow of Rush — another Canadian power trio experiencing great success during the same time period.  Triumph were not favored by critics and where often (unfairly) called “a poor man’s Rush”.

With Progressions Of Power, Triumph delivered a fairly consistent slab of upbeat, non-threatening arena rock.  Like their band name implies, Triumph radiated a positive, “can-do” attitude in many of their songs.  I Live For The Weekend and I Can Survive (my personal fave) are two prime examples of quintessential Triumph.  These are songs meant to get the live audience on their feet and singing along.  The only time things get a little sketchy on Progressions Of Power is the sappy, easy listening of Take My Heart on side two (although I’ve warmed up to it over time).  The album recovers though, and closes strong with the acoustic instrumental Fingertalkin’ and the convincing finale Hard Road.  My score: B+     

Triumph – “Never Surrender” (1983)

triumphI don’t listen to the radio a whole lot, but when I do it is almost exclusively classic rock stations.  This has been true for about twenty years now.  Somewhere around ’96 or so, I kind of gave up on current rock music and decided to live in the past.  In the last twenty years, four or five classic rock stations have come and gone in my area (southern New England) and I can safely say I have NEVER heard a Triumph song played on the radio — not even once.  Strange, isn’t it?  You would think that Triumph would be perfect for classic rock radio.  They were around in the seventies and eighties and had many radio-friendly songs.  Furthermore, Triumph were quite popular in their day.  To date, Triumph have one record certified as platinum, and four others certified as gold in the United States.  But you would never know that if you listened to the radio.  It is almost as if Triumph are a band lost to the sands of time.

Never Surrender was the ’83 follow-up to (arguably) Triumph’s best record, the excellent Allied Forces (1981).  While not as good as that album, Never Surrender still finds Triumph near the top of their game.  Highlights include the politically-themed Too Much Thinking and the rousing title track.  Elsewhere, Triumph incorporate slide guitar in the greasy stomp of When The Lights Go Down.  However, Never Surrender closes rather meekly with a blues guitar solo called Epilogue (Resolution).  It’s a case of over-indulgence — something that would also interfere with Triumph’s next record, Thunder Seven.  My score: B+

Triumph – “Thunder Seven” (1984)

TriumphThe Canadian power trio of Triumph were always a little bit progressive, and at times self-indulgent.  This is understandable based on their collective musical talent.  But while past records tempered their urge to show off their musical chops with plenty of songs that spoke to the common mullet, Thunder Seven seems a little wankier than usual for Triumph.  For the second album in a row, Triumph close with a instrumental featuring guitarist Rik Emmett playing a blues solo.  As great as Emmett was, I don’t think he was at his best with the blues stuff.  I much prefer his classical acoustic solos, like Thunder Seven‘s resident entry Midsummer’s Dream.  Another case of Triumph’s over-indulgence is the vocal-only piece Time Canon.  Though impressive, it’s a tad pretentious.

Triumph were at their best when delivering empowering anthems.  Thunder Seven has its share of inspiring numbers — with my favorite being Follow Your Heart.  The album also includes a couple of interesting choices by Triumph.  The song Cool Down is unabashed Led Zeppelin worship, and Killing Time is a rare treat for Triumph fans because Rik Emmett and Gil Moore actually share lead vocals.  (Typically, a Triumph song would feature either one or the other alone on vocals.)  My score: B

Stone – “Stone” (1988)

StoneFinnish thrashers Stone first appeared on the scene with this eponymous debut in 1988.  Stone was first released by the Megamania label in Finland with the cover depicted on the left.  The album was also released in the U.S. on the MCA imprint Mechanic Records with a different cover.

Stone boasted a stout rhythm section that laid down a solid foundation, while guitarists Jiri Jalkanen and Roope Latvala provided the strong riff work.  I’ll have to say, Stone were a pretty good band.  I guess they would have to be for the U.S. to get a proper release of their first album.  It wasn’t everyday you came across a Finnish thrash album in the U.S. record shops of the late eighties.  The interesting thing about Stone was their odd vocals, which were supplied by bassist Janne Joutsenniemi.  Ol’ Janne sounded like an inebriated teenage waste-case — singing out-of-tune in broken English (and almost never rhyming).  Joutsenniemi’s performance gives the whole Stone album a sort of laid back, boozy vibe.  To me, this makes Stone a little different from the typical, ultra-serious tone that most thrash bands of the day hung their hat on.  Stone threw out the rule book, and I say good for them!  The Stone LP won’t go down as a classic in most books (except maybe in Finland), but it’s an interesting little curiosity to check out.  Standout cuts include Get Stoned and No Commands.  My score: B-