The Golden Age of Metal / TK
Music | January 21, 2009 | Comments ()
*True story - Josh, the guy who does my tattoos, is a big Metallica fan. One day last summer, I’m in the shop and “Metal Militia” from Kill ‘Em All comes on, and we both share a nostalgic smile. I go, “Man, remember when metal bands used to just… sing about metal? How friggin’ weird was that?” Josh chuckles and responds, “Ah, the golden age.” So thank/blame him for the inspiration for this.
Musical eras are always difficult to talk about — when did an era begin? When did it end? Hazen Schumacher argued that jazz, for example, achieved its golden age between 1939 and 1942. William Gottleib took it to 1948. Some would argue well into the 50’s. Some would take it even farther. It’s not something that is clearly definable, this question of the “golden age,” except in the eyes and ears of the individual. It helps, of course, to have been alive during such an age. While I have a healthy appreciation of jazz music, I’m way too young to truly appreciate it the way someone who was there firsthand can, in the context of the lives and times of its peak.
Now metal, on the other hand…
Allow me to take you back to 1988, when I was a gangly, awkward 8th grader (as opposed to now, when I’m a gangly, awkward 33 year-old). I was still trying to figure myself out, emotionally, socially, and yes, musically. I think 7th or 8th grade was when I started really paying attention to music on my own terms — not just singing along to Cat Stevens and Simon and Garfunkel in my parents’ car, not just listening to whatever the radio was churning out, but actually developing taste of my own. Since I had a penchant for random destruction and noise (not to mention Dungeons and Dragons RPG’s and fantasy/science fiction films), I was inevitably drawn towards heavy metal.
Well, I got there just in time. I still remember my first metal album, which was, as it probably was for many metalheads, Metallica’s Master of Puppets. Released a couple of years earlier (1986), it is one of the seminal works in the history of metal. It took me in, shook me up, knocked my head around a couple of times, and spit me back out. That was it. I was lost forever to metal, and still am to this day. I soon devoured every Metallica album available at the time, then moved on to Megadeth, led by Dave Mustaine, the former Metallica guitarist. From there, it became a journey, as I devoured every metal album I could get my hands on. Until I discovered punk rock and hardcore music in high school (a whole other article, believe me), it was denim jackets with patches sewn on (by my mom, of course), black jeans, shitty haircuts, and lasting damage to my eardrums.
One could argue that the golden era of metal can actually be traced using Metallica’s career arc. Kill ‘Em All, their first album (and tied for my favorite with Puppets), came out in 1983. From there, it went to Ride the Lightning in 1984, Master of Puppets in ‘86, …And Justice For All in 1988 and finally their self-titled album (also referred to as The Black Album) in 1991. While I actually don’t particularly care for their eponymous album, it’s well-regarded by fellow metalheads, so I’ll include it in the conversation. Sure, bands like AC/DC had been banging around before that, but I consider that more “Hard Rock” than metal. Either way, right around 1991 is when metal started to lose steam, when bands like Metallica started to water down their acts in an effort to gain a wider audience, and when the genre in general lost prominence. Oh, sure, Slayer, Megadeth, Nuclear Assault, Testament, Napalm Death and their ilk continued to pump out quality albums, but they lost what little mainstream popularity they had, partially due to the rise of grunge acts like Pearl Jam, whose album Ten (along with Nirvana’s Nevermind) gripped the world by the throat in 1991. From there, grunge and alternative bands took their place in the forefront of the musical landscape.
But for those eight years from 1983 to 1991, metal was in its prime — in fact, 1986 in particular was probably the apex of metal’s heyday. Headbanger’s Ball was at the top of its game, despite being hosted by toolbox extraordinaire Ricki Rachtman (Christ, was he a fucking dork). Headbanger’s Ball was salvation for metalheads, who frequently had to suffer through cheesy poseur metal like the “W” Triumvirate of Sucktastic - Warrant, Winger, and Whitesnake. God. Awful, just awful. For the purposes of this discussion, those bands and their ilk will not be included (but next week, they’ll get their due… trust me).
Yes, metal snobbery, you fucks. You thought I couldn’t get any snobbier? Well, you were fucking wrong. That said, here are my favorite albums from The Golden Age of Metal. We start (where else?) with the Horsemen of the Metalocalypse — Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax and Slayer.
Metallica: Master of Puppets
[Elektra Records, 1986]
The classic, and Metallica’s gold standard. Master of Puppets was the apex of Metallica’s evolution — they’d left behind the fantasy-metal elements from Ride the Lighting (“Call of Ktulu,” anyone?), but hadn’t cut their hair and started writing music about Very Important Issues yet (though the title track is an obvious cocaine metaphor, but hey, who wasn’t singing about blow in the 80’s?). At the same time, they weren’t the immature, speed/thrash metal band that they were with Kill ‘Em All, which although a fantastic record, is not a very mature one. “Battery” is a definite candidate for the “Favorite Opening Tracks” list, as commenter jpguy13 astutely pointed out. The slow(er) song, “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” is thoroughly badass, before Metallica started with their crappy, “Nothing Else Matters”-esque power crooners. There are no bad songs on this record — in fact, there aren’t even any average songs here. It is start to finish a phenomenal piece. Sadly, it was shortly after the release of this album that their genius bassist, Cliff Burton, died in a bus accident. In my opinion, the band was never the same.
Megadeth: Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying?
[Combat Records, 1986]
Dave Mustaine served as Metallica’s lead guitarist during Kill ‘Em All but left due to alcohol and drug abuse problems (and if Metallica, back then, kicks you out for that shit? You got problems) as well as for being a giant asshole. It’s just as well, because he’d go on to form Megadeth, another fantastic metal band, though one that lacked the mainstream appeal that Metallica had, partially due to their refusal to get too commercial, partially due to Mustaine’s voice which, while Megadeth lovers appreciate it, was kind of… whiny at times. Regardless, Peace Sells…, the second album after Killing is My Business, And Business Is Good was another top-notch metal entry. Sticking to their songs about Armageddon, nuclear holocaust and a world at war, Megadeth was never a terribly cheery band. But Peace Sells… featured Mustaine’s signature screaming and growling, lightning-fast guitar shredding, and was all-around brilliantly composed, and featured some really killer guitar solos. Not to mention the presence of Vic Rattlehead, their… um… mascot? is always welcome.
Slayer: Reign In Blood
[Def Jam, 1986]
Slayer has been accused of everything from Nazism to Satanism in their time, and Reign In Blood, with songs about concentration camps, religion, disease and mass murder, certainly provided no shelter from that criticism. Yet it’s still a brilliant album, combining the beginnings of hardcore with thrash/death metal, vocalist Tom Arraya’s barking roars, and brutal, machine-gun double-bass drumbeats. With song titles like “Angel of Death” (another outstanding opening track), “Raining Blood” and “Postmortem,” Slayer terrified the average listener, and raised the hackles of notorious hand-wringers like the P.M.R.C. (remember them? the Parents Music Resource Center, featuring the unholy alliance of Tipper Gore and James Baker? Ah, Tipper. You dumb bitch.) with their howling musical assault. In fact, on tracks like “Altar of Sacrifice” which featured lyrics like these (“Altar of sacrifice, curse of the damned / Confronting the evil you dread / Coalesce into one your shadow and soul / Soon you will meet the undead / Enter to the realm of SATAN!”), they were basically looking for a fight. Something I’ve always admired about them, actually.
In all honesty, Reign In Blood represents only the beginning of Slayer’s rise. Their next two albums South of Heaven (1988) and Seasons In The Abyss (1990) could easily also be labeled their best work, but you gotta start somewhere. My favorite album title wouldn’t come about until 2001’s God Hates Us All. Ah, Slayer. You do know how to bring a smile to my face.
Anthrax: Among The Living
Island Records, 1987]
Anthrax is perhaps most well-known for their collaboration with, of all groups, Public Enemy, on the track “Bring The Noise. It was a sort of thrash metal/hardcore rap take on “Walk This Way.” They were also well known for their classic hit “Got The Time” off the oddly named The Persistence of Time album. But they were also one of the godfathers of American metal, and Among The Living is easily their best album (although Spreading The Disease is a close second). Yet another band content to simply sometimes sing about just… metal (“Caught In A Mosh”), Anthrax was a hammering speed metal band who was known for their rowdy concerts, their energetic guitar player Scott Ian, and their clever lyricism. They also always win points for singing a song about Judge Dredd (the comic, Dustin, not the shitty Stallone movie), called “I Am The Law.”
Another quick story - In 1991 I saw Anthrax, Public Enemy, Fishbone and Primus in concert together. It was perhaps the most insane concert I’ve ever seen, and yes, of course everyone (everyone) came out for “Bring The Noise.” It was absolutely phenomenal.
“I Am The Law”
Judas Priest: Screaming For Vengeance
[Columbia Records, 1982]
Yes, technically this comes before the parameters I mentioned above. But one can’t ignore the incredible Screaming For Vengeance, the classic Metal from Across the Pond album. What makes Vengeance so impressive is that it’s Judas Priest’s eighth album. These fuckers were at it for a long time. Screaming For Vengeance isn’t the shredding terror that the other albums mentioned are, it’s more anthem-metal, but the discussion is incomplete without it. Additionally, Rob Halford was always unique in that he fronted a metal band with short, bleached blond hair, like a British headbanging Pat Smear. This album, along with Motorhead’s Ace of Spades, show just how incredible the Brits were when it came to metal, as well as how ahead of the US they were. If I were making a “Forefathers of Metal” list, those two would absolutely be on it.
“You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’”
… and just for the fuck of it (this is for you, Slim):
“Ace of Spades”
Nuclear Assault: Game Over
[Columbia Records, 1986]
Nuclear Assault was a later entry into the metal world, with Game Over being their first album. Originally formed after bass player Danny Lilker left Anthrax (with roadie John Connelly, who would become the lead singer and guitarist), they sought a heavier, more thrash-intensive sound to go with Connelly’s grunting and wailing. They certainly succeeded. One of the less well-known metal bands from the 80’s, Nuclear Assault was another act to feed on the lyrical fodder provided by the Cold War and Ronald Reagan’s nuclear fearmongering, following in the footsteps of Megadeth. Game Over was also notorious for featuring a rather offensive track called “Lesbians”, as well as the 46 second, gleefully obnoxious “Hang The Pope” (“Hang the Pope / hang the Pope / hang the Pope / Hang him with a fucking rope / Let’s go to the Vatican, get him out of bed / Put the noose around his neck and hang him till he’s fucking dead,” repeat, and fucking finished). But while they never reached the heights of Metallica or Megadeth, or even their sires, Anthrax, they are still one of the greats.
“Stranded In Hell”
Pantera: Cowboys From Hell
[Atco Records, 1990]
Cowboys From Hell is actually not Pantera’s best album. That dubious honor goes to Vulgar Display of Power, released in 1992… but we’ll get to that in a moment. Cowboys From Hell is still an outstanding metal album, full of glorious shred-work by Diamond Darrell (R.I.P., brother), great drumming, Phil Anselmo’s growling (but also some surprisingly soft, well-sung vocal work), and a subtle Southern flavor. More interesting is that it represents a perfect example of how metal reinvented itself. Cowboys was the second release from the Pantera version 2.0 — their first few albums were awful, big hair-and-and-spandex glam metal affairs that were truly cringe-inducing. When Anselmo came on board, the band started to find an identity, become much more blue-collar, hardcore, straight-up metal. Power Metal, the preceding album, was the first in this foray into honesty, and Cowboys was next. It worked beautifully, with fist-pump-worthy tracks like “Primal Concrete Sledge” and “Domination.” The slower piece, “Cemetary Gates,” is a great mix of slow and fast, soft and heavy, with Anselmo switching between singing and screaming seamlessly, perfectly in synch with the crescendoing guitars. And, of course, there’s the requisite song about… well, about metal, “The Art of Shredding.”
But even better, Pantera’s next album, Vulgar Display of Power, helped resurrect metal in 1992, or at least extend its life further into the 90’s. Metal still lives today, of course, but albums like that one helped bridge two eras.
“Cowboys From Hell”
That’s all I’ve got for now — honestly? My neck is sore from listening to all of these. But I gotta admit, I love them today almost as much as I did 20 (gulp!) years ago. Honorable mentions go to Iron Maiden, Testament, Biohazard (whose bassist once kicked me in the head at a concert), Napalm Death, Corrosion of Conformity (a personal fave) and of course, Sepultura. So let’s hear it, metalheads — who were your favorites? Tell your embarrassing wardrobe stories! Efilnikufesin!
::throws a goat::
::staggers out dizzily::
TK can be found wandering aimlessly through suburban Massachusetts, wondering how the hell he got there while yelling at the kids on his lawn. You can find him raising the dead in preparation for world domination over at Uncooked Meat.