Def Leppard – Hysteria
Released August 3rd, 1987 on Mercury Records
Has there ever been a rock band as completely on-the-nose as Def Leppard is on Hysteria? I mean really just taking the idea of Big Dumb Rock and making it Bigger, Dumber, and Rockier. It’s not enough to have an album with the ultimate power ballad, “Love Bites” on it. Not at all. They also had to have the ultimate arena rock anthem, the stripped-down-to-essence rock ‘n’ roll fist-pumper “Pour Some Sugar On Me”. And the sanitized stadium lust of “Animal”. And the pure butter melodies of “Armageddon It”. And the Eighties rock heroics of the title track. And “Rocket”. And “Women”. It was wall-to-wall singles, all chart-reaching arena pounders without any depth beyond having a good time and sticking your fist in the air. And yet it’s coming was as hard-won as any hardscrabble up-and-coming band’s might have been.
In 1983 the band released Pyromania. Their previous two albums had established them as a driving force in the poppier side of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, the sprawling, dank counterweight to the British punk movement that also featured Union Jack-wavers Iron Maiden and Diamond Head, from whose discography Metallica grokked most of their moves. Pyromania was a huge success in America, driven by hit singles “Photograph” and “Rock Of Ages”; the band only released three singles despite selling towering piles of records because they didn’t want to flood the market and undercut the inevitable follow-up. That follow-up, Hysteria, wouldn’t arrive for another four years. The band, who had recorded with Mutt Lange for Pyromania, wanted to go bigger and tapped Jim Steinman, the songwriter for Meatloaf. Steinman wanted to record a more visceral, in-your-face Def Leppard; the band had hired him, however, because they wanted a clean, crisp, gigantic arena rock album. As singer Joe Elliot pointed out, Steinman wrote Meatloaf, but it was Todd Rundgren that produced him. Those early efforts were frustrated by the gap between band and producer and then were cut short in 1984 when drummer Rick Allen flipped his Corvette on New Year’s Eve and ended up losing an arm.
The idea that the drummer from Def Leppard only has one arm is a sort of rock ‘n’ roll cliche now (thanks to the Bloodhound Gang) but getting Allen back up to speed was both time-consuming and technologically challenging. Thankfully the band’s label was awash in money thanks to Pyromania and so the latter proved to be no serious issue. Allen’s kit became a hybrid traditional and electronic kit, with MIDI triggers built in that would play the sounds that Allen would typically have used his left arm for. Learning to use it was the harder part, and most of 1985 was spent just getting the band back into fighting form. By the end of 1985 Allen was on top of his game again, and Mutt Lange had returned to produce new recording sessions. 1986 would also prove to be a challenging year, since Lange himself crashed his car (with less injuries than Rick Allen suffered) and Joe Elliott somehow managed to contract the mumps.
The end result of all of that, however, was a bona fide hit machine, a chart topper that ruled the airwaves for the end of the Eighties. Mutt Lange has said that he and the band wanted to record a crossover album that would have wide pop appeal, like a NWOBHM Thriller, and that’s pretty much exactly what Hysteria is. Def Leppard would hit the Billboard Top 40 with ten consecutive singles, seven from Hysteria, beginning with “Animals”. They would never again achieve such success, although they always managed to pop up in the charts from time to time. Hysteria is about as pop as metal got in the 1980s, scrubbed clean to the point where there’s really nothing metal about it at all. Still, it’s instantly recognizable and a pillar of Eighties production; Mutt Lange would go on to use the tricks he pulled on Hysteria to inform his then-wife Shania Twain’s country-crossover success.
Guns N’ Roses – Appetite For Destruction
Released July 21st, 1987 on Geffen Records
The highwater mark for Eighties hard rock came directly from the squalor of L.A.’s rock club circuit, the combination of two hot bands in that scene: L.A. Guns and Hollywood Rose, the latter of which featured guitarist Izzy Stradlin and singer Axl Rose. The three members of L.A. Guns – lead guitarist Tracii Guns, bassist Ole Beich, and drummer Rob Gardner – were either fired or quit, and of their replacements, two were former Hollywood Rose alumni (Slash and Steven Adler). Bassist Duff McKagan was the only out-of-towner, hailing originally from Seattle. Still, regardless of the fact that the band was basically Hollywood Rose in it’s structure, the name Guns N’ Roses stuck.
It’s an apt name for the band on Appetite For Destruction: blazing-gun guitar work and attitude with a dash of the rose, or at least a facade over burning lust. In an era when so-called “hair metal” was dominating MTV with increasingly-saccharine pop music and power ballads, GNR were a fist in the nose. Bands like Poison and latter-day Motley Crue were pretending at being loud and dangerous; Guns N’ Roses actually were. This was the same era in which Vince Neil was singing about “Girls, Girls, Girls” and David Coverdale was crying in the rain. Right from Axl Rose’s snarl of “you’re gonna die!” (cribbed from a homeless man who’d warned him in that exact fashion when he’d arrived in L.A.) this was something different – brash and bold, the musical equivalent of a street kid offering you weed with a switchblade hidden behind his back.
There were a lot of ways it could have gone wrong. 1987 was also the year that Def Leppard released that most boneheaded of hard rock singles, “Pour Some Sugar On Me”. GNR’s id-driven sound could have had thudded like that, but it was kept deft by the dancing rhythm section of Stradlin, McKagan, and Adler, who were much more Rolling Stones than they ever were Black Sabbath. Slash’s guitar work has always had trouble getting out of the minor pentatonic range, to be true, but it fits his work on Appetite exactly, like his leads were always meant to be married to the rest of the band’s boxer-bounce clamour. Axl Rose also never sounded better; his soaring, hectoring nasal voice found the vanishing point between Bon Scott and Brian Johnson (ahem) and took up residence there, becoming the signature voice for a generation of aspiring hard rock vocalists.
Much has been said of the problematic nature of the songs on Appetite. The album’s original artwork featured a surreal beholder-like monster attacking a robotic rapist, with the robot’s latest victim lying disheveled on the ground. Indeed, there is a certain obnoxiousness present throughout the tracks – singing about getting sex on demand, regardless of consent, spilling out a tell-all on “My Michelle”, glorifying alcoholism on “Nighttrain”, spelling out the boys-club rock ‘n’ roll fantasy lifestyle on “Paradise City” – but, coming from a quintet of near-homeless, drugged-up and boozed-out miscreants barely out of adolescence and raised on Zeppelin and KISS, it’s maybe not hard to figure out where that obnoxiousness comes from. At any rate, the band sells their songs with such vitality and fervor that it’s hard not to bang your head along, even if you’re worried about the message it sends. It’s also important to note that a lot of the filth and fury present here is dredged up from the then-decade-old punk rock scene, and presented as a middle finger to the Just Say No, Nancy Reagan, Christian America of the 1980s.
Everyone from a certain era has put “Sweet Child O’ Mine” on a mixtape for a person they’ve been romantically/sexually interested in, except for me. For reasons I’ll never be quite clear on, my go-to was usually “Rocket Queen”, probably because the latter is a much better-written song and the former is built around a guitar exercise Slash found stupid, and for good reason. I’m convinced that the only reason he changed his tune on it was because it got so godawfully huge. It’s a really annoying riff, even if the rest of the song is pretty okay.
Even as the band’s star diminished (by 1992 they were mostly a bloated joke, made fun of by Nirvana and the rest of the Alt Generation) Appetite For Destruction remained a classic album, a legacy of where rock ‘n’ roll had been prior to Nevermind that carried over into the new alternative world by sheer force of attitude. Even in the face of sprawl, an acrimonious breakup, a revolving-door lineup, and a long-delayed vaporware album that was finally released, Appetite For Destruction remains the quintessential GNR album, the one that makes them rock stars for life, regardless of all else.
Emperor – Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk
Released July 8th, 1997 on Candlelight Records
Listen, In The Nightside Eclipse is a stone classic. It’s my favourite black metal record, although if you’re a purist I’ll probably say it’s Sunbather just to piss you off. Regardless, Nightside is the album I would point to and say “that’s black metal”, in case you were wondering. That said, Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk, the band’s second album, does everything Nightside does, only bigger, and in widescreen. While there are somewhat less keyboards overlaying the churn of Anthems, and it doesn’t have “I Am The Black Wizards” on it, it does work in a much clearer fashion, upping the production values and drilling down more on the intense blastbeats to anchor the songs, rather than mixing everything into a shoegazer-approved blur.
By 1997, of course, the Norwegian band was surrounded by a black haze of controversy, like the filth and the fury surrounding the Sex Pistols twenty years prior but much more viscerally psychotic. Original drummer Faust murdered a man in 1992 for making passes at him in a forest near Lillehammer; that day he went with Mayhem’s Euronymous and Burzum/Mayhem-affiliated pagan-fascist Varg Vikernes to burn down one of Norway’s ancient Christian stave churches (the latter two would later fall out, leading to Vikernes’ infamous murder of Euronymous in 1993). He and Emperor co-founder Samoth went to jail in 1994, shortly before the release of In The Nightside Eclipse, although Samoth was imprisoned for arson, having been caught burning down another church with Varg Vikernes. Anthems was recorded after Samoth was released on parole in 1996; still, most of the record is the brainchild of Ihsahn, vocalist, lead guitarist, and main arranger of the sumptuous, vile suites. Controversy followed them on tour (and again in 2015, when Faust was released from prison and went on tour with Emperor), but it only served to bring further notoriety and interest to the Norwegian black metal scene and Emperor specifically.
Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk is arguably (but only barely arguably) the peak of Norwegian black metal, from a technical and sonic standpoint. The band themselves would put out a wildly uneven third record (IX) and then turn into an endlessly-touring machine under the sole control of Ihsahn. The genre would burn out on cheesy adolescent theistic Satanism, cross the Atlantic, and be reborn first as paganism with the Nordic fascism removed (Wolves In The Throne Room) and then as a vehicle for hipster American musicians’ experiments in metal, both failed (Liturgy) and sublime (Deafheaven). Anthems, then, remains the high-water mark for purely Scandinavian black metal.
Napalm Death – Scum
Released July 1st, 1987 on Earache Records
Back in high school, my English teacher was big into heavy Seventies rock music. He had a cassette-player stereo he would keep in class that he would play old stuff on; incidentally, this is where I first heard the glory that is Master Of Reality. In time of course we put our own generation’s heavy music on, trying to introduce him to the evolution of what he’d grown up on. We put on Master Of Puppets and he remarked that it just sounded like Black Sabbath sped up.
Lord only knows what he would have said if we’d put Scum on. If Metallica took Sabbath riffs (filtered through a thick NWOBHM asthetic, of course) and concentrated them into pure modular speed, then Napalm Death did the same thing but on a hyper level, creating black holes of metal riffs that were played with such speed and power that they, too, ate light. This is where grindcore was born, and if Anal Cunt would later turn the genre into a stupid joke, Napalm Death came barreling out of the gate in all seriousness, spitting politically-inflected fire in all directions. Thrash metal, the scene that birthed Metallica et al., was a fusion of Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, and hardcore punk rock. Grindcore was the same idea, only taken to it’s logical, extreme conclusion. The guitar, bass, drums, and vocals all speed by in a corrosive blur that carved out new spaces for metal, often in under one minute. Perhaps the most fully artistically realized moment, “You Suffer”, takes place in the space of two seconds (making it the world’s shortest song, at least according to the folks at the Guinness book).
Scum was not the first grindcore album, technically (the sounds that went into it had been brewing for a few years) but it was the first one to get a slightly more widespread audience than the six guys down at the basement hole that passed as an experimental metal club. It found an audience not only with metalheads unafraid of a little speed, but also among noise/ambient heads and the hardcore weird experimental wing of the jazz cats. It became quite influential in it’s own right, providing a guidestone for bands that thought even the death and black metal scenes in the 1990s was too tame.
Death – Scream Bloody Gore
Released May 25th, 1987 on Combat Records
The 1980s saw a grinding evolution of metal, one that splintered so deeply that there is today internecine warfare between various sub-sub-sub-genres that spun out of each of the genre fractures that came about in the decade. To understand what in the living fuck extreme technical melodic death metal is, you have to first parse out each of the various categories inherent in that genre and understand the paths that led to them. Thankfully we don’t have to do that here, because Scream Bloody Gore was a – some say the – founding document of the disgusting bloody mess that is death metal.
Metal was covered in rock ‘n’ roll cheese for the most part until Judas Priest finally got good right near the end of the 1970s. Around the same time two major influences on the metal underground sprang to life: the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and hardcore punk. NWBHM included bands like Diamond Head and Iron Maiden; these were tight, riff-heavy metal bands that emphasized modular songwriting. Hardcore punk brought speed, pounding drums, and amelodic shouting and made them de rigueur for being on the cutting edge of how far music could be pushed. The two were combined into thrash metal, a by-now familiar genre whose Big Four were Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, and Slayer. Of those four, the biggest influence on the ever-heavier underground was Slayer; some might try to add Celtic Frost or Venom into the mix, but the birth of death metal is entirely due to Hell Awaits and especially Reign In Blood. Death metal itself stems from Death, the band (and not the Detroit proto-punk band), whose early work spawned a whole host of disturbing weirdos first in Florida and later the world who would be inspired by it.
Scream Bloody Gore is basically Reign In Blood with a few major exceptions. To be sure, it’s built around pounding, speed-obsessed passages drawn directly from “Jesus Saves”, but Chuck Schuldiner’s guitars are tuned down a hell of a lot lower, he uses a lot more palm-muting, the emphasis is more on blastbeats than separable riffs, and the band utilizes breakdowns quite a bit more. Also, Schuldiner’s vocals are harsher than Tom Araya’s; Araya has a certain scream he uses that hits an interestingly high register, and it’s much easier to pick out what he’s singing about. Schuldiner’s vocals are more like the howlings of the eternally damned, pitched lower and more of blurred screams than anything resembling what people traditionally think of as “singing”. The lyrics also feature a notable difference. Reign In Blood was about evil Nazi death-doctors and the hypocrisy of religion and insanity. Scream Bloody Gore, meanwhile, is exactly what it says on the tin: these are about zombies, cannibals, blood, slaughter, and gore. This, in essence, would be what “death metal” would be about from 1987 onward: downtuned guitars, blastbeats, low-pitched howls, and gore, gore, gore.
The San Francisco Chronicle referred to Scream Bloody Gore as “the first death metal album” and this is true of everywhere outside of Belo Horizonte. An entire underground industry was born out of it and the bands that poked their heads out of their dank practice spaces because of it. The production quality is utterly primitive by modern standards, but there are still bands who chase that sound out of a sense of purity and complete anti-commercialism. Schuldiner’s death in 2001 put a halt to the band’s activities but they remain among the most influential bands in modern metal – certainly the crazed proliferation of both bands and sub-genres would never have happened without Death or Scream Bloody Gore.
Judas Priest – Sin After Sin
Released April 8th, 1977 on CBS Records
Released on the same day – and on the same British label – as The Clash, Judas Priest’s major label debut is a leap forward in a direction that would solidify the genre of heavy metal as much as The Clash would for punk rock. While it wasn’t the definitive statement of hard rock and heavy metal at the end of the 1970s – that would be their next two albums – it was a definite harbinger of things to come. Rob Halford sounds as though he’s still coming to terms with his shrieking demon wail (he seems even a trifle unnerved on parts of “Starbreaker”) and the rest of the band is playing it somewhat safe in the space carved out by Deep Purple. This last is underscored by the fact that production was handled by Purple bassist Roger Glover. Regardless of this somewhat unsure path, the, er, British Steel that lay within the band was clearly evident on tracks like “Sinner”, “Let Us Prey / Call For The Priest”, and the pummeling “Dissident Aggressor”, which would (many years hence) be covered by Slayer. It’s hard-rocking album, to be sure, but there would be much harder moments in the future. Much harder.