A hasty glance at the Lowbrow Literati archives reveals that I seldom write about music. I’ve produced thirty-some installments of this column for PopMatters, and only four of them have anything to do with music; none of them is music criticism, strictly speaking.
Put simply, I lack the requisite vocabulary to discuss music critically. I don’t even make a point of reading music criticism; a proper music critic might write about rhythm sections and melody and use words like “staccato” or “soundscape”, but I am more stirred, invited and persuaded by a friend saying, “I dig the part where the guitar is all, junga-junga-whrair!”
Matt is just such a friend, and in 1997 he introduced me, with much reluctance on my part, to Skid Row’s Subhuman Race. Matt was the staunchest glam-rock metalhead I had ever met, and this at a time when metal had reached its critical and popular nadir. (A mutual friend met us at my place for dinner one night in 1996 and chuckled, “Guess who’s playing in the club up the street? Warrant! Can you believe it?” At which point Matt hissed “What, like now!?” and raced to the club.)
Matt knew I loved to mock his beloved glam bands, but he kept insisting that I would love Skid Row’s overlooked effort from 1995. I like to think that my skepticism was well-founded; 1989’s “18 and Life” and “I Remember You” did little to distinguish Skid Row from their glam-metal peers. What intrigued me, finally, was that Matt was not a fan of Subhuman Race; he complained that the album sounded nothing like the songs the band had produced in their late-‘80s heyday.
He was right: Subhuman Race sounds nothing like 1989’s Skid Row or 1991’s Slave to the Grind. Skid Row could have defiantly stuck with their glam-metal roots, though in 1995 that would have been career suicide. (Subhuman Race was a commercial bomb, at any rate.) Alternately, the band could have attempted to blend in with the then-current alternative scene. (They did in fact choose this option, to some limited extent; more on that in a moment.) Ultimately, Skid Row opted to fall back on the only choice that remains for a metal band with no place in the mainstream culture: they made the heaviest damn album in the world.
If you don’t pay close attention, you can almost miss Subhuman Race’s mid-‘90s alternative trappings. Bach never grunts out a bored, understated “yeah”, for example. (Alice In Chains took the inexplicable “yeah” trend to delirious heights in the hit track “Again”, from their self-titled final album with original vocalist Layne Staley. “Again” was either a staggering case of self-indulgent excess or the greatest and most knowing call-to-arms against one’s own peers, genre and fanbase since the early-‘80s Dead Kennedys anthem, “Chickenshit Conformist”, which begins with the popular slogan “Punk’s not dead” and follows it up with, “But it deserves to die, when it becomes another stale cartoon.”)
The album’s title, Subhuman Race, is proudly metal… and refreshingly polysyllabic. Seriously, what was with that crazy monosyllabic trend in the mid-‘90s? For a year or two, every album seemed to be called Up or Down or Go or some damn thing.
And yet, for all the relative subtlety of Skid Row’s musical efforts at cultural camouflage, there is paradoxically a nearly comical literal-mindedness to their method of adopting the themes and posture of the day through Subhuman Race’s lyrical content. One trendy component of the ‘90s rock scene was a hippie-esque celebration of nature; enter Subhuman Race’s “Eileen”, a moody power ballad that manages to be simultaneously pretty and creepy (“the songs you sing are scaring me”), but which falters during its chorus, when Sebastian Bach croons, “Eileen / She’s calling me / To sit awhile and talk to trees”.
It’s a passable lyric, but it’s so self-consciously trying to sound like something Eddie Vedder might sing that it becomes distracting; since when did Skid Row ever sing about trees? (The Ramones fell prey to the same trap in their final studio album, Adios Amigos, wherein Joey Ramone sang, “She talks to birds, she talks to angels / She talks to trees, she talks to bees / She don’t talk to me.” One is also reminded of those gloomy-gus goth-rockers Type O Negative, who went from lyrics like “I know you’re fucking someone else” and “Kill all the white people / Then we’ll be free” [the band members are white, incidentally] to choruses like “Be my druidess” and “Whoa, mistletoe / It’s growing cold.”) Worse still, if also strangely convincing in spite of its stilted, nonsensical awkwardness, is this lyric from Subhuman Race’s “Remains To Be Seen”:
Trip / The lightning spastic
Captain fantastic / The nineteen-seventies
The alternative “scene” of the ‘90s was really little more than a well-meaning but pretentious and hollow rejection of ‘80s artifice, and so it was perhaps inevitable that nostalgia for the ‘70s became just as prevalent a theme as nature; recall the Smashing Pumpkins hit, “1979”. (Better still, don’t.) For Skid Row to just come right out and sing “the nineteen-seventies” calls to mind the time I browsed the shelves at the Chico, California Blockbuster Video and discovered a straight-to-video wonder called Women in Prison. Women-in-Prison is a genre; you don’t title your movie Women in Prison. Nor, if you hope to invoke the ‘70s, do you resort to singing, “the nineteen-seventies”.
It took quite some time for me to notice these lyrical mishaps, for the simple reason that my already meager critical capacities are thrown hopelessly asunder whenever I hear a properly heavy riff; one cannot overstate how aggressively, seductively heavy is Skid Row’s Subhuman Race. (I have yet to hear any of Skid Row’s more recent work with frontman Johnny Solinger, but Sebastian Bach for one has continued to follow his metal muse; his most recent solo effort, Angel Down boasts traces of Exodus, Annihilator, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. It is not as accessible or as confident as Subhuman Race, but it somehow manages to be heavier.)
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