Once upon a time, Ronnie James Dio rounded up a bevy of heavy metal legends to record a charity single. Yet no amount of superstar power could stop the song from falling by the wayside.
By early 1985, charity singles were all the rage. Band-Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, helmed by Bob Geldof of the Boomtown Rats, became an instant classic at the end of 1984, with its bevy of UK and Irish pop stars propelling the song to the top of charts worldwide.
Written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie on 20 January 1985, recorded the next day, and released in early March, “We Are the World” might not have been as superbly crafted a song as “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, but its American star power was staggering, the likes of which pop music will never see again on record. True to form, its sales were astronomical, well in excess of 20 million worldwide. Even Canada got into the action that spring, with the quaint, syrupy “Tears Are Not Enough” (which became that country’s top-selling single of 1985), followed Latin American supergroup single “Cantaré, cantarás”.
Ronnie James Dio had a good heart, but also a keen eye. Noticing a distinct lack of hard rock/heavy metal presence in this growing trend, he was smartly quick to act. Not only could he and his peers do some good, raise some money for a worthwhile cause and give heavy metal -- which was right smack in the middle of the “satanic panic” and PMRC controversy -- a level of respectability, as far as public perception went. The little guy with the big voice had an ego, and he knew that if this took off, it’d be a wonderful feather in his cap, a lasting legacy.
Along with two members of his band, guitarist Vivian Campbell and bassist Jimmy Bain, Dio wrote the song “Stars”, gave the project the cutely punny name Hear ‘n Aid, and brought in around 30 of the biggest names in heavy metal who were available. Among them: Rob Halford, Vince Neil, Iron Maiden’s Dave Murray and Adrian Smith, Yngwie Malmsteen, Blackie Lawless, Ted Nugent, Don Dokken, Geoff Tate, Kevin DuBrow, George Lynch, Brad Gillis, and many more. On 20 and 21 May, they all convened at A&M Studio in Hollywood and hammered out a seven-minute epic that featured eight lead vocalists, the requisite choir chorus (all part of the fad), and best of all, the epic shred solo to end all epic shred solos.
It’s a gimmicky track featuring some sincere but maudlin lyrics, and you can’t listen to a charity song today without thinking of the ultimate satire of the form, “We’re Sending Our Love Down the Well”. All the familiar Dio tropes are there: the fascination with dark versus light (“We are magic in the night, we are shadow, we are light”), and the juxtaposition of power and sensitivity (“We can be strong, we are fire and stone / And we all want to touch a rainbow”). Better yet, though, is the arrangement by Campbell and Bain. It’s a simple chord progression, but one of the Dio band’s best compositions, an empowering melody that was restrained enough to provide ample room for singers to vamp (Dave Meniketti is tremendous) and guitarists to strut their stuff.
Lasting nearly three minutes, no fewer than 11 guitarists let loose during that crazy solo section, showcasing their chops on record. That solo, cut-and-pasted together, has been the subject of a lot of lampooning over the years for its excess, but to an ‘80s metal kid it was the coolest thing ever. If your ears were sharp -- and ‘80s metalheads’ ears indeed were -- you could identify each of those musicians as easily as a jazz aficionado could pinpoint a sax soloist. Malmsteen's’s speed and fluidity makes him like a Swedish Paganini. Lynch’s speed and muscle can be heard in the force of his picking and his fingers on the fretboard. Brad Gillis’s Guitar Institute of Technology gimmickry features an absolutely sick whammy bar. Young phenom Craig Goldy, whom you can tell had already caught Dio’s eye, was given a plum spot on the track; he would indeed replace Campbell in Dio’s band months later. Eddie Ojeda focuses on melody, and Neal Schon on force. Buck Dharma’s restraint and grace gives the section a great sense of resolution.
It’s a wonderfully uplifting song, one that did decently, raising upwards around one million dollars. However, its impact was disappointing. Unlike USA for Africa, which cranked out a monster single in six weeks, “Stars” was caught up in legal red tape for ages, finally released in mid-1986. By then, in the wake of Live Aid, the public consciousness had tired of the charity single, and Hear ‘n Aid, from the zeitgeist’s perspective, was hopelessly passé. The song peaked at 26 in the UK, but aside from airplay on metal shows in Canada and America, it failed to be a crossover success. The Hear ‘n Aid companion album was a strange hodgepodge of live tracks from 1984-1985 (Rush, KISS, Accept, Motörhead, Scorpions), a Y&T throwaway, and an inexplicable inclusion of Jimi Hendrix’s “Can You See Me” from Are You Experienced. Compared to the ambition of “Stars”, the rest of the album was filler, a huge disappointment to fans who had waited a year for the thing to come out.
Today, with the album long out of print and the song still nonexistent on digital formats, “Stars” has been reduced to a YouTube curiosity, leaving no option to listeners but to turn to illegal downloading to obtain the thing for their own. Dio’s widow and manager Wendy was quoted in late 2011 as saying she was working on re-releasing the album and the accompanying long-form video on CD and DVD, but there’s been no news of it since. If it’s because of legal issues again, it’d be a real shame, because metal fans everywhere -- especially youngsters on Spotify -- are being deprived of a key moment in the legacy of metal’s greatest singer. Dio tired to do some good, succeeded a little bit, but most importantly, left behind a fantastic song. The world deserves to hear it once again.
What’s Out This Week
Coal Chamber, Rivals (Napalm)
For some reason there was a need for Coal Chamber, one of the most forgettable bands of the forgettable nu-metal era, to reunite. Well, Dez Farfara has taken a little break from DevilDriver, one of the most forgettable bands of the post-millennial metal era, and made a new Coal Chamber album that’s just as forgettable as the rest. Grungy, down-tuned riffs that sound dumbly simple, plodding grooves, and of course, plenty of suburban angst. If you’re nostalgic for this sort of thing, then by all means have fun with it -- and, admittedly, “Another Nail in the Coffin” has a decent hook. For the rest, there’s not much appealing here, if at all. (Listen on Spotify.)
Drudkh, A Furrow Cut Short (Season Of Mist)
It still feels like their best work is behind them (Blood in Our Wells, to be specific) but the Ukrainian black metal band is still a cut above most in the genre. On their tenth album, an improvement over 2012’s Eternal Turn of the Wheel, they don’t break new ground but sound in full command nevertheless, the towering arrangements accentuated by beautiful, mournful melodies that reflect the musicians’ heritage. The LP is intense and overtly evil in that comical black metal way, but most cruciall,y there’s a level of grace these guys bring to the form that you don’t hear often enough. It’s one thing to sound imposing, but to do so with a sense of stateliness is rare, and this album makes it sound effortless. (Listen on Spotify.)
Faith No More, Sol Invictus (Reclamation / Ipecac)
I’ve already written at length about Faith No More’s first new album in 18 years at NPR, so I’m reluctant to slip into self-plagiarization here. However, I will add that although Sol Invictus felt a little underwhelming upon first listen, two months later it feels like a sneaky little record, the audacity of the band’s early work now replaced by something a lot subtler: more eclectic than you think, and featuring a powerhouse performance by the great Mike Patton. The more you dig into this concise, taut album, the more rewards you’ll find. It might not be the album of the year, but it’s better than 1997's Album of the Year, and we’ll take that. (Listen on Spotify.)
Galley Beggar, Silence & Tears (Rise Above)
In the tradition of Fairport Convention, Black Widow, and Comus, Galley Beggar taps into not only the classic psychedelic folk and acid rock of the late-'60s and early-‘70s, but the ancient pagan roots of England. In other words, you get music that reflects the pastoral English countryside, but also the deep mystery and history underneath it all. The music starts off soothing, thanks in large part to singer Maria O’Donnell, but it’s not long before the darkness sneaks in and makes things just unsettling enough to keep you on edge. With a strong balance of acoustic arrangements and electrified jams, it’s not exactly anything new, but it’s beautifully done, and is bound to appeal to folk, prog, and yes, heavy metal fans alike. (Listen on Spotify.)
Haste the Day, Coward (Solid State)
The best thing about this Christian metalcore band from Indiana is how they at least put an effort to think outside the box a little bit, leaning more toward Norma Jean and Converge than, say, the Devil Wears Prada, but for all the energy they convey on record -- this thing is suitably ferocious -- they do little, aside from the odd gang vocal chorus and whiny power ballad, to make themselves stand out. (Listen on Spotify.)
Tau Cross, Tau Cross (Relapse)
Led by Amebix main man Rob Miller and Voivod drummer Michel “Away” Langevin, this new project is actually at its best when it sticks to the industrial crust punk sounds Amebix has become so well known for. The first four songs, for instance, do their job exceptionally, capturing that primal, mechanical sound well. But the longer things go on, the more the band feels the need to diversify, and tracks like “Hangmans Hyll”, “We Control the Fear”, and “Sons of the Soil” derail all that momentum, but fast. It had to have been fun for the guys in the band, especially Langevin, who’s as big a fan of crust punk and post-punk as you’ll ever come across, but you can only sense that fun on little more than half of the record. (Listen on Spotify.)
Venomous Maximus, Firewalker (Shadow Kingdom)
The second album by this Houston outfit is a funny departure from 2012’s rampaging Beg Upon the Light. From the get-go, it feels more slipshod, a lot looser, the recording a lot more no-frills, the vocal approach by Gregg Higgins a more idiosyncratic howl. It’s not unlike the streamlined sound In Solitude took on a couple years ago, but in this band’s case, much grittier in tone. The fundamental influences still loom large -- Pentagram and Iron Maiden -- but you can hear more of their true selves surfacing more here, especially on such contagious tracks as “Dark Waves” and “Angel Heart”. Some moments befuddle more than enthrall -- just what the hell are they doing on “Firewalker Theme?” -- but overall this is a good transition toward something better, something unique. (Listen on Spotify.)
Weedeater, Goliathan (Season of Mist)
Dixie Dave Collins and his North Carolina sludge trio are back with a fifth album, and to no one’s surprise it plays to all their strengths: pure Southern sludge metal derived from Eyehategod, that combination of fuzz, thick heaviness, and a mighty, lumbering swing is at times too contagious to sit still to. You just have to move, those grooves glide along so effortlessly. Collins’s voice, a dry, cartoonish snarl, has long been a sticking point for yours truly, but if that’s a hurdle you can get over, then this album will scratch that sludge itch for you perfectly. As it stands, for this writer it’s a musically brilliant album -- the closing instrumental “Benaddiction” is marvelous -- with an intermittent annoyance. (Listen on Spotify.)
It’s a fun week for album anniversaries, and with my going on and on about Hear ‘n Aid, I’m in a nostalgic mood, so why not keep going with three more albums?
By 1980, KISS was basically "The Paul Stanley Show". The disco tunes on 1979’s Dynasty were a surprise crossover pop success, so the band expanded on the idea a year later, collaborating once again with Vini Poncia, who co-wrote “I Was Made For Lovin’ You” and “Sure Know Something”. Unfortunately, Unmasked, which turned 35 this week was a huge career misstep, reducing the KISS sound to slick AOR. As lightweight as the record is -- Gene Simmons sounds utterly lost on the three songs he sings on -- it does have some real guilty pleasures from Stanley (“Shandi”, the deliriously giddy “Tomorrow”, “What Makes the World Go Round”) and three very solid, underrated tracks by Ace Frehley (“Talk to Me”, “Two Sides of the Coin”, “Torpedo Girl”). This album would send the band into a downward spiral, kicking off a decade of band member turnover, desperate rebranding, and a bevy of inconsistent albums, but like the rest of their music from that decade, there’s good music to be found here if you dig enough.
If there’s a book to be written about the history Christian heavy metal -- nope, it’s not going to be me -- Stryper’s 1985 album Soldiers Under Command is its Book of Genesis. The first Christian metal album to be certified Gold, Soldiers Under Command is extraordinary for the way it connected to secular metalheads. Who cares if they sang about God and Jesus when the music’s this good? Satan, Christ, Odin, whatever a metal band wants to sing about, it’ll be taken literally by some, and as fantasy by others. What made Soldiers Under Command so electrifying was that this foursome from the LA glam metal scene had incredible musical chops and could write tracks that balanced aggressive heavy metal and pop-oriented hard rock. “The Rock That Makes Me Roll”, “Reach Out”, “(Waiting For) A Love That’s Real”, and the brilliant title track burst with power that still feels surprising considering the subject matter, and Accept producer Michael Wagener captures it all well, helping give the tunes even more bite. Ballad “First Love” drifts a little too far into Air Supply territory -- it still grates on yours truly after 30 years -- but this is still a mighty potent album, and would pave the way for 1986’s To Hell With the Devil the first platinum album by a Christian metal band. Underneath the gimmicks -- remember, all heavy metal is gimmick -- is legitimate heavy metal of real substance, and a lot of headbangers in 1985 had this cassette right next to their Slayer tapes. (It’s not on iTunes nor Spotify, so YouTube it is.)
Lastly, turning 20 this week is Opeth’s masterful debut album Orchid, one of the most important metal albums of the '90s. Much like what Emperor’s In the Nightside Eclipse did for black metal, Orchid bright a more progressive perspective to death metal. All of a sudden, young Mikael Akerfeldt had taken the budding sound of brutal Swedish death metal and brought in elements a varied as doom, classic ‘70s prog, and even a little Bathory-style abrasion and grandeur. It was indeed a sea change for death metal, opening doors that many never thought were even possible within its parameters. The sky was now the limit, and all progressive and technical death metal owes everything to this album. Today the record still feels a little rough around the edges, but Opeth is a rare band in heavy metal in which it started hitting the ground running, each subsequent record a crucial and equally important chapter in what’s been an enthralling evolution to follow. Led by “In the Mist She Was Standing” and “Under the Weeping Moon”, Orchid remains a marvel, planting the seeds for a groundbreaking career.
Track of the Week
No Head Above Ground this week -- I happily reserve the right to mix and match these categories willy-nilly depending on content -- but this week’s noteworthy track is from one of the biggest mainstream bands, as Lamb of God announced its return with “Still Echoes”. The band’s biggest problem has always been its tendency to self-plagiarize, but coming off a very trying period that included singer Randy Blythe’s arrest and incarceration in the Czech Republic, you have to think there’s renewed passion among the band. And indeed, you hear a rejuvenated Lamb of God on this track, one that still retains that core sound the fanbase loves so much, but with a little more assertiveness, a little more intensity than on the last few records. This bodes very well for new album VII: Sturm Und Drang, which comes out 24 July.
Blabbermouth Headline of the Week
Horns Up: Terry Jones of Pagan Altar, Psycho California, a cancer-free Bruce Dickinson, and a new Maiden album this year.
Horns Down: Sodom missing Maryland Deathfest, novelty covers of metal songs (make it stop), the Gatekrashör kerfuffle in Alberta.
Follow me on Twitter at @basementgalaxy.