Monday, April 7, 2014

Blame Metallica : A Rant on the Death of Thrash Metal

The eventual death of thrash metal in the early nineties has often been blamed on the rise of Nirvana, but I think the mighty Metallica deserve as much credit for killing the genre. After the success of the “One” video on MTV, Metallica had broken through to a larger audience never thought possible by a thrash metal act. "One" was the power ballad track off of "...And Justice for All" - an overproduced and somewhat self-indulgent album (but still plenty heavy, and loyal to the genre). Heading back into the studio in 1990, the band had big name producer, Bob Rock and millions of dollars of commercial backing for what was to be the biggest thrash metal release in the history of the relatively new genre. 

Thrash metal's birthday is somewhere around 1981-82 in San Francisco and Los Angeles California. A fair number of bands started around that time, combining the technicality of the growing "new wave of British Heavy Metal" with the aggression and speed of the hardcore punk scene. 1983 saw the initial thrash metal releases, the first of which being Metallica's debut, Kill'em All. Though it had much in common with the NWOBHM overseas, there was an sharper edge and more aggression to it that started the ball rolling for other acts. Exodus, Slayer, Testament, and Anthrax all followed shortly after, and by 1985 it was a bonafide movement. 

Metallica had always carried the torch for the American thrash bands, setting the rules and then changing them. Though many bands had imitators, Metallica were the fathers of the genre, and clearly had the largest fan base. In the late eighties, independent record labels had grown and developed entire catalogs based solely on thrash metal. Germany, England, and other parts of Europe soon developed thrash movements of their own. Though still rather underground, a handful of bands had started to gain significant followings: Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax, and, of course, Metallica. 

Each Metallica release was bigger than the last. Ride the Lightning in 1985, and Master of Puppets in 1986 are still classics of the genre. While on tour in Europe, a bus accident resulted in the death of Cliff Burton, Metallica’s bassist. The genre lost one of its leaders, but the band carried on, releasing …And Justice for All in 1988. The popularity of Master of Puppets allowed the band to over-produce their 4th album - mixing their new bass player, Jason Newsted, completely out of the mix and boosting the lows in their guitars so much, that the palm-muted parts distort on average speaker systems.

Despite the production, the album was well received. I’ve always felt it lacked the songwriting of the previous two albums. Some tracks play like a collection of cool riffs rather than a proper song (Harvester of Sorrow, Frayed End of Sanity, Eye of the Beholder), other tracks are fairly strong (Blackened, And Justice for All). One was an obvious pick for their single. It had an approachable verse and chorus, and then thrashed proper towards the end. The response to the single really started the events that led to thrash’s demise.

Music is a business, and Metallica showed music execs that there was money to be made in this relatively untapped sub genre. So, as the 80’s came to a close, the major thrash bands were suddenly being snatched up by major labels at a fervent pace, and with that, came audible market influence into the music. Metallica started to bring in some real money, so the labels were trying desperately to find the next Metallica. 

There were positives to this reaction - the production values got much better, as did distribution. Thrash bands were now getting wide exposure - influencing the rest of the world. On the other hand, there was also the obvious market influence in the music’s sound. Just look at the differences between 86-88 albums and the 89/90 albums of key thrash acts: Sacred Reich, Testament, Slayer, Anthrax, Exodus, Flotsam and Jetsam, Sepultura, Death Angel. Yes, one could argue that the bands were all changing with the scene, and Metallica were merely trend-setters. That would be plausible, if not for what happened next. Metallica emerged from the studio on August 12, 1991, with an album without a title and void of cover art that you could really see - reminding all of us old schoolers of a joke from the movie Spinal Tap about “how much more black can you get?… The answer is none… none more black.”

Anyway, cover art aside, “Metallica” had twelve tracks of over-produced metal that fans immediately noticed was “dumbed-down.” The complex arrangements and abnormal time signatures were gone. Any of their previous progressive elements were gone. What Metallica had done, essentially, was take their thrash metal sound and dumb it down for a wider audience. And it worked… to an unforeseen level. Metallica became huge, opening up for big time acts like Guns and Roses.

The idea that Metallica, the fathers of thrash metal, were co-headlining arenas with a band from the LA “hair metal” scene was dripping with irony. You see, thrash metal was birthed out of a loathing for the hair metal scene. Metallica actually relocated from LA to San Francisco to get away from a scene that didn’t really accept them. Now, they were peas in a pod… playing the same bill.

Nirvana’s hugely successful Nevermind was released on September 24, 1991 - 42 days after Metallica’s “Black Album.” Did it add to the genre’s decline? Undoubtedly. But the proverbial nail in the coffin was thrash’s other major acts following in Metallica’s wake with their own attempts at a “Black Album” album to gather more fans. It wasn’t really until 1992-93 when you began to hear the full impact:
  • Megadeth’s phenomenal “Rust in Peace,” was followed by the watered-down and occasionally comical “Countdown to Extinction.” (92)
  • Testament released “The Ritual” (92) which barely sounded like the same band.
  • Sean Killian sounds like he was told to “stop screaming” on Vio-lence’s depressing “Nothing to Gain.”(93)
  • Exodus turned into groove metal on “Force of Habit”(92)
  • Germany’s mighty Kreator changed their sound completely on the transparently named “Renewal” (92)
  • What the hell happened to Anthrax on “The Sound of White Noise” (93)
  • Overkill had their own ironic title with the slowed down, and much tamer “I Hear Black” (93)
  • Flotsam and Jetsam sound like plagiarists on “Cuatro” (92) - a blatant Metallica wannabe
  • Nuclear Assault stretch their sound to places it just can’t go on “Something Wicked” (93)

So, as Thrash Metal’s torch carrier led their followers down paths of false hope for stardom, a new genre started poaching thrash metal’s audience, many of whom had been alienated and disenfranchised by their favorite band’s lastest albums. I can’t explain why “The Black Album” hit gold and nothing else did. I’m not sure it’s any better than any of those albums I mentioned above, but Metallica went on to depart even further from their sound, now sounding like a cover band when they play those classic tracks live. 

The grunge that the radio referred to was really alternative rock, and they called it “college rock” before that. It had it’s day and over-saturated the market. In the world of metal, more extreme genres took over: death metal, black metal, and grindcore gave the true metal heads what they needed. Then in 2003-4, a new band emerged, flying the thrash metal flag for the next generation: Lamb of God. 

The past ten years has seen a thrash metal revival of sorts. New bands have emerged with a “classic sound” and many of the original bands have reformed, or never really went away. Many of the bands I mentioned in my “sell-out” list have released “comeback” albums over the past ten years. In addition, they have set out on special tours where they play an entire album from start to finish. And guess what, they’re not playing their album from 1993 are they? No, they’re playing the album that was written from their heart and out of their hopes for stardom. Ironically, they’re probably more successful now then they ever were in the 90’s, and they’re doing it by playing thrash metal, and not that watered-down bullshit they were whoring themselves out for. And Metallica? They finally issued their apology in the form of “Death Magnetic” in 2008. It’s by no means on par with those classic first four, but after a decade and a half of crap, it sounds halfway decent. 

Thrash metal came into my life at the impressionable age of 13 and because of that, the metal genre has always been what I pour my energy into, even 25 years later. In the nineties, I ran to death metal, dissatisfied with what my childhood thrash heroes were becoming. Sadly, even death metal got commercialized to an extent towards 2000. Then, we metal heads got old enough to have enough money to demand what we wanted: musicianship, creativity, and brutality. Metal is enjoying more exposure now than ever before, probably because it is comfortable with its spot on the commercial end of things, and not trying to be the “next big thing.” And yes, pop music still sucks.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Gwar Album Review Spectacular


With the death of Dave Brockie last week, I was listening to a great deal of Gwar and I thought - maybe it's time to return to the blog with a Gwar tribute. So here it is, my thoughts on all 13 of Gwar's Albums from 1988 to 2013. I won't spend a lot of time talking about the Gwar mythos, I'm going to assume you are familiar with the story behind the band, or if so inclined, will look it up yourself. Let's talk music.


Gwar's debut is a low budget treasure trove of raw crossover classics. The lofi nature of this recording is really part of its charm. A great deal of time and energy clearly went into this release - this is a band trying to conquer the world, literally and figuratively. Hell-o has some undeniable nostalgia for me, so objectivity is difficult, but there are some classic songs here that still sound fresh when they show up in their live sets. "AEIOU," Americanized," and "Je M'appelle Cousteau" are some of the earliest Gwar tunes, and they're still essential in their catalog. Oderus is clearly an original and powerful singer mixing a sweet tenor singing voice with growls and screeches. His unique vocal cadence would define the band's sound, regardless of the music backing it. This album is more punk than metal, but it definitely has an edge. It also established, right out of the gate, that Gwar did not care who they offended, and maybe they were hoping to offend everyone. The goofy and less-then-subtle "I'm in Love with a Dead Dog" is a good example of this irreverence. Yes, this is lo-brow, childish humor, but it's also a great deal of fun. Old school Gwar fans cherish this album, new ones may find the production and punk style hard to get behind. 4 out of 5


Universally loved by their entire fan base, Scumdogs put Gwar on the map and earned them the recognition and commercial success they needed to take their production to the next level. The underground buzz of Hell-o led to a contract with Metal Blade records. Gwar show they can be heavy and irreverent and it works for them. Picking highlight tracks is almost futile, because there really isn't a bad track on here, but "King Queen," "Maggots," "Salaminizer," and the insanely catchy "Sick of You" are all outstanding. The barebones production and ridiculously cheap-sounding use of samples simply add to the appeal. Even the guest vocalist songs like "Slaughterama" and "Sexecutioner's Song" are good fun and not the needless filler they could have been. Though the nostalgia factor is huge with this album for me, thanks to the internet I have found that majority of Gwar's fans love this album equally as much. 5 out of 5. 


Gwar's new found success led to a much bigger budget and the ability to step up the production values of both their audio content and their stage show. Fueled by the frenzy mounting behind them, Gwar's third album feels quite ambitious and exciting right out of the gate. "Ham on the Bone," "Crack in the Egg," "Gor-Gor," and jazz-thrash-fusion "Have You Seen Me" all seem like the logical progression from the previous album. Not only that, but they a new spark behind them (and a beefy production) that seems to take it to the next level. The writing seems inspired, the band more accomplished, and the vision more focused. Then something happens, the album runs out of gas. Two goofy tracks follow, introducing story elements to the incoming stage show - the morality squad trying to censor Gwar. They're both misses. Then there's "Poor Ol' Tom," a painfully slow and aimless sounding chunk of filler. The joke glam song and the joke power ballad are both throwaway tracks as well. So, in essence, Gwar's 3rd album could've been an EP, and it would be worthy of a 5. As a 12 song LP however... Not so much. After track 4, you might as well go back to track 1 and start over. 2.5 out of 5. 


Gwar had built a fairly impressive following by the time this fourth album came in 1994. This Toilet Earth introduces another new villain, Skullhedface, who steals Gwar's mojo essentially. Musically speaking, this is along the lines of America Must Be Destroyed, with thankfully more consistency. Most of the songs are crossover thrash with a few anomalies, particularly Skullhedface's track which features full orchestration. The band also sounds downright poppy on a few tracks, particularly "Jack the World" which has a real upbeat chorus. There is the common genre-stretching tracks like "Slap U Around" and "Pepperoni," and the obligatory way-too-offensive song, "B.D.F." "Saddam a Go-Go" seemed a mainstay on their set lists for years to follow, and "Krak-Down" seems to have an unrealized potential as a hit. For the most part though, this feels like a more approachable and even a more commercially viable Gwar, something that would doom several albums to come. 3 out of 5. 


This album is the beginning of Gwar's awkward phase. Ragnarock shows the band rehashing some old ideas, bringing back Sexecutioner and Sleazy P. Martini for songs (though neither is as successful as the previous outing). Most of this is standard Gwar material, but it feels uninspired and smacks of contract obligation. "Meat Sandwich," "Dirty Filthy," and "Knjfe in Your Guts" are all decent tracks, but it is starting to feel like "Gwar-lite"- like they're losing their edge a bit. Most of the other tracks fall flat and the Oderus and Slymester Hymen duet is awful. Though far from their worst, there's little on here to bring me back to it. 2 out of 5.


Though I was a fan since Scumdogs, this tour was the first time I saw Gwar live. This album is massive - 18 tracks that seem to go on and on. Carnival sees the band really starting to venture from the metal genre again. "Letter from the Scallop Boat," "In Her Fear," "I Suck on My Thumb," "Gonna Kill U," and "Sex Cow" are all novelty / throwaway tracks that would've helped slim the album done a bit if they were tossed. Ditto for the Gwar Woman album closer which is bad lounge music with a poor singer. What's left is a reasonable amount of songs with some essential tracks. "Penguin Attack," "If I Could Be That," and "Back to Iraq" are all high-spirited Gwar staples. The return of Techno Destructo is also a nice surprise as the band modernizes the classic track from Hell-O on "The Private Pain of Techno Destructo." Carnival of Chaos is about half a decent album and half a waste of time. 2.5 out of 5. 


The darkest moment in the band's career is this colossal misstep which extends the novelty song tendencies of the previous release to the next level - essentially making this a LP worth of joke songs with little to no metal to be found. Even the punk elements have been turned into poppy nonsense, making song titles like "Baby Raper" and "Fish Fuck" seem all the more ridiculous and stupid. Even moments where Gwar tries to get heavy fall apart into boring uninspired drivel like "Escape From the Mooselodge" or "Jiggle the Handle." Where Carnival of Chaos had a handful of essential tunes, We Kill Everything is void of anything that would justify a recommendation. Only the instrumental manages to pass by without giving me the urge to skip it. This one would best be buried and never spoken of again. 0 out of 5


The opening moments of "Battle Lust" seems to issue an official apology for their last album as it bursts with the thrashy sounds of old school Gwar, with just the right amount of goofiness. "Apes of Wrath," "Bile Driver," and "Licksore" all have that heavy sound we've missed for the past 3 albums or so. "Immortal Corruptor" has a beautiful intro which sets up perhaps the strongest track on the album. The band sounds heavier than ever before. They don't have to say it, they realized they were going in a bad direction, and they corrected it. Like many Gwar albums, it has a few tracks which could've been cut to streamline the release and shorten the running time a bit, namely the last two tracks. Ultimately though, Violence Has Arrived is a triumphant comeback album and probably the strongest effort since This Toilet Earth. I'm glad they got whatever that was out of their system. 3.5 out of 5. 


Gwar's second commercial peak is probably this album. With a new found commitment to their crossover thrash sound from the early nineties, the band issued their most focused effort since Scumdogs. The War Party is a political party focused on solving the world's problems with one tool: war - a concept that provides plenty of opportunities to offend, and provides perfect material for their live shows. War Party shows Gwar honing their skills and showing a profound understanding of what their fan base wants and expects from them. Predictable, yes, derivative, definitely, but also very listenable and well executed. The addition of a new lead guitarist doesn't hurt either as Gwar officially has a shredder - check out that lead on "Bonesnapper." The title track, "Bring Back the Bomb," "Krosstika," and "The Reganator" are both rocking and dripping with political sarcasm - Gwar in their comfort zone. War Party served as a validation for the band regarding what works for them both artistically and commercially. It's the start of a very enjoyable phase in their career. 4 out of 5.


This album tells the story of Gwar journeying through hell to confront the devil. A promising concept to be sure, but this album's story seems to take precedence over the songwriting. The style is very much in line with War Party, but the songs feel more like a vehicle for storytelling than songs that stand on their own. That's not to say there are not decent tracks to be had here: "Tormenter" has some fine guitar shredding and a rousing, ominous chorus, "Destroyed" has some impressive riffing, and the final showdown with the devil on "The One That Will Not Be Named" is sufficiently epic and rather funny. The playing is top notch and things are plenty heavy, it just lacks the catchiness and memorable moments of the predecessor. 3 out of 5. 


Gwar's next album continues with their new found commitment to all things heavy. With a real shredder leading the axe attack, their riffs have a more progressive sounding edge to them. Lust in Space sees the Scumdogs finally getting a spaceship and getting off of earth (it only took them 11 albums). They maintain their balance of metal and punk with more through-composed tracks that focus on storytelling. Where Lust seems to succeed where Beyond Hell didn't, is that many of these songs are plenty catchy. "Let us Slay," "The Uberklaw," and "Metal Metal Land" have singalong choruses and solid hooks. "Lords & Masters" is nice bouncy tune with a nod to the golden age of Motörhead. The amusing "Where is Zog?" Tells of Oderus discovering his old master is a a washed-out drunk and has a rare voice appearance of Balsac at the end of it. Lust is another solid "3rd phase" Gwar album thats worth checking out. 3.5 out of 5. 


Gwar keeps rocking on this 2010 release, their 12th full length. This is as straight forward a metal record that the band has released since Scumdogs. Oderus is full on pissed here, with plenty of lyrics to spew forth. Many of the tunes seem "lyric heavy," meaning there are a shitload of words crammed in. It is very effective however, as it brings to mind the Gwar of old. They sound recharged and focused on this release with heavy-riff laiden numbers like "Zombies, March!" and "A Gathering of Ghouls," and witty tracks like "Tick Tits," "You Are My Meat," and laugh-out-loud worthy "The Litany of the Slain" (which nicely lists those killed on stage over the years). For a band pushing 30 years of existence, this album is surprisingly fresh sounding and has the highest replay value of all their recent outings. 4 out of 5


Gwar's final album has a much different feel than the previous few. Though still very much in the crossover thrash vein, there are times where the band is starting to sound downright progressive. Just check out the start-and-stop drumming on "Nothing Left Alive," or the staggered opening and dual guitar work of the title track / instrumental. Much like the excellent Bloody Pit of Horror, Battle Maximus sounds fresh and inspired. "Mr. Perfect" is a kick-ass mid paced rocker, "Torture" sounds like old school Gwar mixed with the new Carcass, and "They Swallowed the Sun" has a weird-as-hell yet incredibly catchy chorus. Vocally, Oderus is trying some new things, combining different vocal lines on top of each other on the prog-sounding "Triumph of the Pig Children." He almost doesn't sound like himself at times, but it's still pretty damn cool. It's a pity Oderus has passed, for his band was enjoying the most consistent high quality output of their career. Battle Maximus is a worthy final entry. 3.5 out of 5.