The 1990s was a tough time for Maiden, and a tough time for metal. In the coming months, we will present several articles that shed light on different aspects of this period in Maiden’s history. Today we provide some background by looking at 10 metal music masterpieces from a time of change, when the world left 1980s metal behind to find new ways and new sounds. Obviously, we are including Maiden’s own Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son.
When the 1990s dawned, hard rock was facing a make-over. Grunge and other new types of rock music took over the airwaves, the record shops, and the concert halls. A distinct line was drawn between what was cool and what was not. The 1980s tendency to lean too far towards meaningless hair metal had prepared the ground for music with a different message and aesthetic.
But there’s the proverb about throwing out the baby with the bath water. Some of the greatest records in the history of hard rock music was created at exactly that point, when the 1980s were bleeding into the 1990s. This week’s Feature Friday shows appreciation for 10 masterpieces by bands that established themselves before the turn of the decade, before the changing of the guard.
10: KISS – REVENGE (1992)
This 1970s juggernaut spent most of the 1980s desperately trying to fit in with the times. After the awesome album comeback Creatures Of The Night (1982), they sunk deeper and deeper into mimicry of hair bands like Bon Jovi and Poison. It’s almost as if the coming of the 90s allowed KISS to regain their identity, and Revenge is one of the best albums they would ever make.
Partially a reaction to the tragic loss of drummer Eric Carr, Revenge is KISS at their metallic best. Under the guidance of producer Bob Ezrin, the band creates some of their best ever music with songs like Unholy and Heart Of Chrome. After a decade of detours, it seemed as if KISS had finally found their place in a time that didn’t really belong to them. Ironically, Revenge would be their last studio record before the original line-up’s reunion, and thus their final effort at readjustment before two decades of nostalgia trips and huge paychecks.
9: MÖTLEY CRÜE – DR. FEELGOOD (1989)
Okay, this is the most hair metal-ish entry on this list. But take a chill pill for a moment and imagine what it took for Mötley Crüe to sound this good in 1989. They had risen to fame with albums like Shout At The Devil (1983), and nearly fallen apart with substance abuse and general decadence by the time of Girls, Girls, Girls (1987). By all accounts, they were dead and gone.
Enter producer Bob Rock and a life-saving dose of sobriety. It may still be fundamentally party rock we’re talking about, but the quality of the songwriting and the heaviness of the production is a rarity when it comes to 1980s hard rock. With the Rock treatment, songs like Dr. Feelgood, Kickstart My Heart, Same Ol’ Situation, She Goes Down, and Don’t Go Away Mad make up an album that sets it apart from most other hair bands of the late 80s. For a band that made its name in the golden age of the L.A. glam scene, Dr. Feelgood is a surprisingly good album, and indeed the record that made the Crüe more than a curiosity in the long run.
8: METALLICA – …AND JUSTICE FOR ALL (1988)
It was the black album, Metallica (1991), that would epitomise their commercial peak, with its multiple hit singles and swaggering metal grooves. But their thrash era came to a close some years earlier, when …And Justice For All became their biggest seller to that point and exposed the band to huge audiences on high-profile tours. Granted, thrash bands were not in danger of being made obsolete by grunge, the way KISS or Mötley Crüe were, but it’s still interesting to consider how the big bands at the time responded to the climate change. Justice is the album that laid the groundwork for Metallica’s monumental 1991 effort, and thus provided the basis for the band’s untouchable status. Even if fans often disagree about its merits.
The production is often the point of debate, in particular the dry and unpleasant drum sound and the complete absence of Jason Newsted‘s bass. It is truly hard to fathom what sort of thinking lay behind these mixing decisions, but it is equally hard to dispute the importance to the genre of tracks like Blackened, Harvester Of Sorrow, and One. Metallica built on the success of Master Of Puppets (1986) and delivered a thrash classic that was defiantly uninterested in the vogue of the day. For these Bay Area thrashers, hairspray and make-up still lay a few years ahead…
7: MEGADETH – RUST IN PEACE (1990)
But when it comes to thrash, even the late 80s incarnation of Metallica had mighty strong company. One of their toughest rivals was ex-Metallica guitarist Dave Mustaine‘s Megadeth. Always struggling to catch up with his former bandmates, with Rust In Peace he finally got there, and then some. Introducing the Mustaine/Ellefson/Friedman/Menza line-up, this record might be Megadeth’s crowning achievement.
One needs only to list the song titles: Holy Wars…The Punishment Due, Hangar 18, Tornado Of Souls, Five Magics, and so on. Mustaine had finally assembled a force that would compete with the very best of them, and Rust In Peace was their battle cry. Putting this album on, even today, is a shock to the system, and a reminder of what thrash metal could once do. Again, thrash bands were not threatened by grunge and other new styles in the way that more hair-ish bands were. Megadeth would however move on to more commercially accessible territory with subsequent albums, but it’s unlikely that they ever made a more important one than this.
6: W.A.S.P. – THE HEADLESS CHILDREN (1989)
Best known as shock rockers in the mid-80s, Blackie Lawless‘ W.A.S.P. took a surprising turn at the end of the decade, delivering an album that demanded to be taken seriously. Gone was the blood and gore, and the emphasis was shifted to rock solid songwriting and thought-provoking lyrics. The Headless Children remains their most impressive work ever.
The molten metal of opener The Heretic, the gothic majesty of the title track, the haunting beauty of the ballad Forever Free. There’s even a kick-ass rendition of the Who‘s The Real Me on offer. Thick with guitars, and powered by spellbinding vocal performances from the inimitable Lawless, the record drips with ambition. Lawless would go on to channel that ambition into W.A.S.P.’s much-admired but less interesting rock opera The Crimson Idol, and he never quite found his way back to the power and energy of W.A.S.P.’s 1989. The Headless Children deserved to be a blockbuster. It still sends shivers down the spine.
5: SKID ROW – SLAVE TO THE GRIND (1991)
They made their name in 1989, partially through the chart power of ballads like I Remember You, but their second album made metal fans take them much more seriously. Imbued with an overpowering sense of urgency and energy, Skid Row made a giant leap forward and started headlining arenas around the world. From the moment the cowbell kicks in at the start of Monkey Business, it’s obvious that the band desperately wants to move on from the debut album’s sound, which sat a little too close to 1980s hair metal for comfort…
The title track and Psycho Love both kick serious ass, but the ironic surprise of the album is the fact that the ballads impress the most! No less than three masterpieces are present, bringing balance to the mix of metal and contemplation, and they are all works of darkness and beauty: Quicksand Jesus, In A Darkened Room, and Wasted Time. Sadly, the world was robbed of Skid Row way too early, due to their own destructive chemistry. They never recorded a great album again, and are now reduced to playing youth clubs with a Sebastian Bach clone as frontman. Tragic. Slave To The Grind is a glimpse of what could have been.
4: ANTHRAX – SOUND OF WHITE NOISE (1993)
Somehow, Anthrax became a part of the legendary Big Four, and Testament didn’t… In recent years the band has reunited with singer Joey Belladonna to ride a wave of some sort of Big Four-related nostalgia. But the greatest record they ever made was the first with Belladonna’s replacement John Bush behind the microphone. Sound Of White Noise is actually the sound of a band that are poised to embrace the 90s without following trends.
From the devastating opening riffs of Potters Field, through the irresistible hooks of Only, to the haunting Twin Peaks vibes of Black Lodge, the album is nothing short of perfect. Heavy in sound, heavy in performance, and heavy in attitude. When album closer This Is Not An Exit finally wraps things up, you would hope Anthrax meant every word and never stopped being this good. But they did. And honestly, managing to loose Bush is akin to Metallica loosing Newsted. Embarrassing. But thank God, we have this flawless record to enjoy over and over and over again.
3: GUNS N’ ROSES – APPETITE FOR DESTRUCTION (1987)
The biggest-selling debut album of all time. And the numbers don’t lie. Appetite For Destruction really is what the hype says. It’s a mind-bending achievement for a debut, and a record that Guns N’ Roses would never be able to match. 25 years later, GN’R have only released three more studio albums, and even though the double set of Use Your Illusion volumes I and II made them into an international mega act, the shadow of Appetite would forever haunt them.
What’s the secret? It’s a perfect combination of personalities and musicians. Axl Rose keeps fooling himself into believing that all this doesn’t really matter that much, but it does. From the opening riffs of Welcome To The Jungle, through the grooves of Mr Brownstone and Nightrain, to the pure rock’n’roll essence captured in Paradise City and Rocket Queen, Appetite For Destruction still astounds whenever you put it on, sounding like an updated and adrenalized Aerosmith. GN’R may have come out of the glammed-up Los Angeles, but hair metal it ain’t.
2: QUEENSRYCHE – OPERATION: MINDCRIME (1988)
The Seattle band’s embarrassing output in the late 90s and into the 2000s, as well as their pathetic recent split with singer Geoff Tate, does little to diminish the power of one of the greatest metal concept albums ever made. Telling a story of desperation and manipulation that leads the despondent Nikki to join the mysterious Dr. X in an underground revolution, Operation: Mindcrime is the closest thing to a heavy metal Pink Floyd. Not only in its scope and technical proficiency, but also in its conveyance of emotion.
Revolution Calling, Speak, Suite Sister Mary, Breaking The Silence, Eyes Of A Stranger… The album is packed not only with ideas and ambition, but also with memorable hooks, riffs and melodies. There is not a dull moment, and it’s hard not to miss the Chris DeGarmo line-up of the now defunct band. Queensryche would go on to release the extremely successful Empire in 1990, but it is likely that metal fans will name this one as their fave ‘ryche record.
1: IRON MAIDEN – SEVENTH SON OF A SEVENTH SON (1988)
By 1988, Maiden’s star was in descent in North America. The Seventh Son album sold considerably less than its predecessor, Somewhere In Time (1986). By the mid-90s, Maiden’s commercial fortunes on that continent would be at an all-time low. But Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son is one of the very best albums they would ever make, and these days there is a bit of a resurrection going on with the hugely successful 2012-13 Maiden England tour.
From the sinister heavy metal of opener Moonchild, through the otherwordly soundscapes of Infinite Dreams, to the pop-metal anthem Can I Play With Madness, as well as underrated masterpieces of the genre like The Prophecy and Only The Good Die Young… This is a perfect album. After Seventh Son, Maiden’s commercial popularity would not reach anywhere near the same level for more than a decade, when Dickinson and Smith returned to the band. For some, Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son was simply the final great record Maiden would ever make. For most, it is an outstanding exercise in the true greatness of hairspray-free 1980s heavy metal.
These kinds of lists are always difficult, and I should definitely admit to being guided by my own personal taste. I debated many of my choices, and found some very hard to leave out. Chief among these are probably Slayer and Faith No More. The former released two important albums in this period – South Of Heaven (1988) and Seasons In The Abyss (1990), while the latter released their breakthrough album The Real Thing (1989) and the highly acclaimed Angel Dust (1992).
These are just two of the omissions that can be debated below, or in pubs…