A band of pretty youngsters from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and a homely bunch of New York club scene veterans. Rock on.
It's always been common knowledge that 1983 and 1984 were crucial years as far as the development of the metal genre is concerned, and for good reason. List just a selection of the seminal albums that came out during that period, and it's easy to see how those of us who experienced that explosion firsthand as teenagers would immediately wax poetic, misty-eyed at the memory of such a wealth of incredible new music that came out in such a short time frame.
From 1983: Piece of Mind, Holy Diver, Kill 'Em All, Restless and Wild, Melissa, Show No Mercy, At War With Satan. From 1984: Ride the Lightning, Powerslave, Don't Break the Oath, Balls to the Wall, Defenders of the Faith, Morbid Tales, Haunting the Chapel, Fistful of Metal, Bathory.
Album: Pyromania [Deluxe Edition]
Label: Island / Mercury
US Release Date: 2009-06-23
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/p/pyromania-cover.jpgAnd I could go on. At the time, it just felt like a seemingly unending supply of killer new music, but with the clarity of hindsight, the fact was heavy metal was being changed irrevocably on a regular basis, the influence of some of those releases still resonating a decade, even two decades later.
While it's important to chronicle the underground ascent of metal in '83-'84, just as crucial was the rise to prominence of the genre's more accessible side, as band after band, aided by some of the most savvy, contagious singles of the decade, brought heavy metal into North America's mainstream consciousness. While Quiet Riot, Motley Crue, Ratt, Dokken, Bon Jovi, Scorpions, Whitesnake, Van Halen, and even a reunited Deep Purple experienced chart success that ranged from significant to spectacular, two bands in particular led the charge with their third albums.
One was a band of pretty youngsters that originated from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and was desperately trying to achieve stateside success. The other, a homely bunch of New York club scene veterans who experienced only a meager level of success in the UK. And conveniently enough, both of their breakthrough albums have been gussied up a quarter century later, repackaged for nostalgic Gen Xers as expanded deluxe editions.
Anaal Nathrakh: In the Constellation of the Black Widow (Candlelight)
Psychotic enough to give Devin Townsend a serious run for his money, Dave "V.I.T.R.I.O.L." Hunt and Mick "Irrumator" Kenney are the ultimate kitchen-sink metal nerds, two fellas who don't exactly look the part, but fuse together black metal, grindcore, industrial, and everything else they can get their hands on better than anyone these days. Their fifth album is no different, an unrelenting, exhilarating maelstrom of noise, blasting, chilly atmosphere, and clever melodies (check out the inspired melodeath break in "Terror in the Mind of God"), with Hunt's mind-boggling vocal skill making the entire package palatable, best exemplified by the awesome "More of Fire Than Blood". Phenomenal.
Job for a Cowboy: Ruination (Metal Blade)
Two years ago, Job For a Cowboy epitomized the problem with the new generation of deathcore bands, emphasizing staggering technical chops over actual songwriting skill. Incredibly, everything's changed on Ruination: The "core" is all but gone, the band taking on a straight-ahead death metal approach, and while the dexterity is still mighty impressive, the ten tracks are catchy and actually know a thing or two about dynamics ("Summon the Hounds" being a good example). Factor in the continually improving vocal range of Jonny Davy, and you've got one of the more blindsiding records of the summer.
Suffocation: Blood Oath (Nuclear Blast)
It's not like we need further proof that agelessness in metal is often superior to youthfulness, but it's always welcome, and this time around it's Suffocation who comes along, mowing down the kiddie competition with their best album since the 1990s. Like Cannibal Corpse, these Long Island vets know it's not about playing as fast as you can, and while the pace on Blood Oath is deliberate, often slow, its brutality is undeniable, the riffs complex but tar-thick, the drumming pulverizing.
At the helm stands the inimitable Frank Mullen, one of the few death metal vocalists who can truly match the instrumental power with his voice, the capper on a bracing return to form by one of the genre's greats.
Lange, who just came off producing a string of best-selling albums including AC/DC's classic trifecta of Highway to Hell, Back in Black, and For Those About to Rock, as well as Foreigner's hugely popular 4, truly started to develop his own trademark sound with these talented Brits, best exemplified by the stately power ballad "Bringin' on the Heartbreak", which would provide Def Leppard with its first foothold in the US later that year. With audiences' appetites whetted, the band, along with their savvy management team and their cutting-edge producer, went for broke on album number three.And did Pyromania ever break. Ten million copies sold in America alone. Three top 40 singles, unheard of for a band with British metal roots. Videos in heavy rotation on MTV. Headlining arena tours. Released on January 20, 1983, it captured the zeitgeist in a way that no American hard rock band would equal until Bon Jovi did three years later, coincidentally, with their third album. To this day the record is one of the defining moments of ‘80s pop music, and while many other like-minded, lavishly-produced hard rock/pop metal albums have gone on to symbolize ‘80s excess at its most garish, Lange's immaculate, pristine, and undeniably calculated sound makes Pyromania timeless.
Listening to it today, one of the more intriguing aspects of Pyromania is how it balances both the masculine aspects of riff-driven, pounding hard rock with the more effeminate characteristics of pop music. It's an incredibly androgynous record, something every other band during "cock rock'”s heyday, for all of their gender bending images, would never dare to attempt sonically.
Examples are strewn all throughout the ten-track album, from "Stagefright" to "Billy's Got a Gun", but the best is the album's most famous track. Chart-topping single "Photograph" starts off with a biting rhythm riff, gargantuan AC/DC-like beats provided by Rick Allen, and a swaggering vocal intro by Joe Elliott, but when the bridge kicks in, synthesizers start to dominate, giving way to a chorus of chiming guitars, a wistful delivery by Elliott, and what would become a Lange trademark, those lush, heavily layered, harmony vocals sung in a gentle falsetto.
It was and still is four minutes and eight seconds of pop perfection. It's no wonder the song and the album was an across-the-board smash: it was made for mass consumption, accessible to both sexes of all ages, and not just horny 14-year-old boys.
Without a doubt, the album's singles far outweigh the deep cuts, but the lesser tracks do manage to hold their own, albeit just barely at times. "Rock Rock! Till You Drop"'s asinine lyrics are only made palatable by the incendiary guitar work of Steve Clark and Phil Collen and its inspired mid-song breakdown, while the tacky synth effects on "Die Hard the Hunter" ultimately give way to a brilliantly dark track that subtly hearkens to the band's NWOBHM days.
Still, when you have some comparatively lightweight tracks smattered in between such brilliant cuts as the classy, gorgeous ballad "Too Late For Love", the gloriously goofy, arena-igniting "Rock of Ages", and the stupendous, multi-faceted album highlight "Foolin'", the odd slip into rock 'n' roll cliché is never a bad thing, especially when the ride is this much fun.
Whether or not it's worth shelling out bucks for these slickly-designed, slipcase-sporting digipaks is always debatable, with so few releases truly worth the exorbitant price, but the new reissue of Pyromania is as good a deluxe edition that's come out in recent years. First of all, the remaster is phenomenal, obliterating the previous CD version, crisp, boisterous, but devoid of the overcompression that plagues the majority of mainstream rock and metal recordings these days.
Equally impressive is the second disc, which contains a complete, 15 song live set recorded in Los Angeles in September 1983. By then the band was well into its world tour, road-hardened, tight-sounding, and ferocious, and their adrenaline-fueled set is hair-raising at times. Distanced from Lange's meticulous hand, Def Leppard's songs benefit immensely from the much rawer approach in a live setting, taking on new life, "Rock Rock!", "Foolin'", and "Photograph" absolutely blistering, "Billy's Got a Gun" sounding darker, and "Mirror Mirror (Look Into My Eyes)" topping the High 'n' Dry original.
The real revelation on the live disc is Rick Allen, who doesn't so much anchor the songs with his drumming but propel them, infusing each track with a level of energy that, despite all his brave and noble efforts in the years since the 1984 accident that cost him his left arm, he would unfortunately never be able to duplicate again. In fact, compare this set to the band's highly touted yet exhausted-sounding comeback gig in Donington three years later, and it's no contest; circa 1983, Leppard was as explosive as the album's title, young, hungry, and ready to conquer. And this reissue is as close to a perfect snapshot of that era as we will get.