[23 March 2010]
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.)
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.