Blistering, Violent and Moody
One of my favorite tracks is “Subhuman Race”. Nothing from the band’s two earlier albums save for the criminally overlooked title track from Slave to the Grind ever hinted at such aggression. “Subhuman Race” is fast, pissed, and intense, and the lyrics are just as unrelenting as the music: Bach opens by screaming, “Jesus / He knows my story / He knows the position that I’m in”, and just as one begins to suspect that Skid Row have found religion like Suicidal Tendencies, Bach continues, “A hooker knows the feeling / To get the fucked the way I been”.
Indeed, it quickly becomes clear that Sebastian Bach, Rachel Bolan, Scotti Hill, Dave Sabo and Rob Affuso aren’t looking to cozy up to Jesus with Subhuman Race; “Bonehead”, more menacing and frenzied than even the title track, features the delightful chorus, “I’m gonna leave if you stay / I don’t buy what you say / If you’re a new god, let me see a miracle”. Meanwhile, “Frozen” features a riff right out of the Alice In Chains catalog, and since most Alice In Chains riffs sound like Black Sabbath at their scariest and heaviest, this is high praise, to be sure.
While not every song proves successful (“Into Another” and “Face Against My Soul” are somewhat anemic and contrived), the pacing and guitar work in Subhuman Race is so blistering and the lyrics so violent and moody (despite the stumbles noted earlier) that one is compelled to reevaluate the band’s two preceding albums.
Most hardcore metalheads have dismissed Skid Row since the late ‘80s because of their role in the toothless “glam” scene. Hell, I already noted that I did so myself. Still, this dismissal proves to be amusing on several levels.
First, yes, Skid Row was undeniably a glam rock band from the start, though certainly they were a uniquely edgy example of the genre; you wouldn’t catch Poison’s Bobby Dahl sporting a suicide chain or Warrant’s Jani Lane diving into the audience to attack a fan or Kip Winger singing “Get the fuck out”, and none of those bands produced anything half so menacing as the bass line from Skid Row’s “Piece of Me”.
That first album features all the songs for which Skid Row is remembered today, to the limited extent to which Skid Row is remembered at all: “18 and Life”, “I Remember You”, “Youth Gone Wild”. It also features “Big Guns”, an ode to breasts that represents all that is clumsy and stunted and embarrassing about glam rock. (“She got my lovin’ reachin’ for the skies” makes the tiresome puns of KISS seem almost subtle.)
But even at their most glam, Skid Row had something of a punk-rock attitude. In fact, bassist Rachel Bowan would often relieve Sebastian Bach of vocal duties during concerts to perform covers of old Ramones songs, this several years before the popular resurgence of punk after Nirvana broke big with Nevermind, which was released, like Skid Row’s Slave to the Grind, in 1991. By this time, Skid Row had largely abandoned the party-boy posturing of the glam scene, but with decidedly mixed results; “Slave to the Grind” was a brutal precursor of better things to come with Subhuman Race, but if ever a song should have remained instrumental, it was “Monkey Business”.
Listening to it today, one is amazed to discover that “Monkey Business” is tightly-wound, confident and more antagonistic than most any other popular song from the time. But the fact remains that one cannot sound cool, tough or intimidating while singing about monkeys, even metaphorically. (It didn’t help matters that, when it came time to shoot a video for “Monkey Business”, Sebastian Bach chose to supplement what he clearly felt was the song’s inherent badass vibe by… beating up a mannequin. Chilling!)
Finally, it must be noted that a number of other metal bands started out in the glam scene and went on to enjoy credibility and acclaim from the harder-core-than-thou set. Examples include Alice In Chains and Pantera; the latter enjoyed more credibility with the metal fanbase than arguably any band in the ‘80s and ‘90s, despite hopelessly redundant riffs and tiresome, unconvincing macho posturing.
Alright, so perhaps it’s best not to look back at Skid Row and Slave to the Grind; our initial evaluation at the time was apparently quite sound. Still, one cannot help but speculate: were these two albums hokey and juvenile because the band was still finding its way, or because they placed a higher value on teenybopper idolatry than their creative potential to produce heavy, credible and arresting work? Unfortunately, the band’s early false starts and compromises are probably what led consumers in 1995 to ignore Subhuman Race.
Was Subhuman Race, then, the proud work of a band that had finally decided it had nothing to lose? (In which case, the album proved to be a case of too little, too late, at least in commercial terms.) Or were the members of Skid Row simply making a calculated, even cynical effort to remain viable and relevant in a musical landscape that was quickly passing them by? (If so, they should perhaps be forgiven, in light of the acclaim afforded not only Pantera and Alice In Chains, but also such legendary genre-hoppers as Alice Cooper and the Rolling Stones.)
Whatever their motives, in six years Skid Row graduated from lyrics like “Her buried treasure is so easy to see / ‘Cause talk is cheap, and so is she” and “I better see a doctor, ‘cause I think I’m getting hooked on you” in Skid Row to such lyrics as “Your genocide, my genocide / Life is only getting shorter” and “Pour me a chemical to take away the edge” in Subhuman Race. Rather than question Skid Row’s motives, perhaps we should be content to marvel that music fans bought ten million copies of the former and mostly ignored the latter.