Blood and Thunder: Sometimes Metal Smiles Instead of Frowns (and That’s Okay)

The new album by New Jersey glam metal outfit Trixter is a reminder that, for all of metal's self-seriousness and bleakness, it can be a tremendously fun genre when it remembers to smile.

For the longest time, it looked as if pop metal (or glam metal, or hair metal: pick your term) was dead in the water, relegated to being just another oldies channel on satellite radio. Many bands from that era between 1983 and 1991 kept soldiering on through the ’90s and early-’00s, but they all sounded so hopelessly lost, desperately trying to keep up with the times by resorting to such gimmicks as tuning down to grunge that sound more, or employ more blatantly pandering ideas to make it seem they were more “alternative”. In the process, they all lost touch with what made them so great, so fun in the process, and by 1996 MTV was running a “where are they now?” special about pop metal bands that remains one of the saddest metal docs I’ve seen since The Decline of Civilization Part Two. All the musicians they interviewed sounded so lost, almost in disbelief that decade of decadence had ended so abruptly.

By the time pop metal fans hit their 40s, nostalgia kicked in, and plenty of bands from the that era were able to enjoy some modest renewed success thanks to the popular Rocklahoma festival, not to mention all the state fair and casino gigs that suddenly became available. But these are creative people, and unless you’re Twisted Sister, who have parlayed what would be a cabaret act in less skilled hands into a lucrative and very well-received final act to their career, that urge to keep creating will still be there if they give a damn. So it’s easy to understand how a lot of those bands got the itch to make new music, especially when playing those old hits to people who never forgot about them.

Starting late in the ’00s, many of those old pop metal geezers, one by one, started rediscovering that old spark. Dokken marked a return to respectability with the very good Lightning Strikes Again in 2008, while Ratt made an astounding comeback with Infestation two years later. Christian rockers Stryper rebounded hugely with 2013’s No More Hell to Pay, while last year saw Kix, Tesla, Winger, and Night Ranger come through with their most inspired efforts in ages. Hell, Pretty Boy Floyd released an album of KISS covers, and it was killer. It’s gotten to the point where you’re thinking, which band will be next to stun everyone with a comeback?

How about Trixter? Because the New Jersey band emerged during the tail end of the hair metal era, they only had a one or two-year window to make any sort of impact on pop culture before the grunge wave crested, so their legacy isn’t very strong. However, they actually were one of the more likeable acts at the time, sort of the nice guys-next-door compared to the Warrants of the world. The music drew heavily from sleaze, but balanced it with an exceptional pop sensibility (“One in a Million” remains an underrated gem) and what makes their new album Human Era (Frontiers) so astonishing is just how impeccable that balance still is.

“Not Like All the Rest”, “Every Second Counts”, and “Good Time Now” are effervescent and lovable in that circa-1990 way, while “Crash That Party” and “Rockin’ to the Edge of the Night” crank up the tempo and volume as if sullen post-grunge hard rock never even happened. These days bands can’t replicate pop metal without making a big ironic joke out of it all (see Steel Panther), but to do so while embracing the silliness of it all, having sincere fun with it all, wide-eyed and wink-free, is even ballsier. This record won’t be fashionable among more extreme-minded metal fans because Trixter smiles instead of frowns, but it’s their loss, because this is one of early 2015’s finest. I’m as surprised as you are.

Listen to Human Era on Spotify.

Albums Out This Week

Bulletboys, Elefante (Cleopatra / Deadline)

Wait, this is the eighth BulletBoys album? Apparently the Los Angeles band has been motoring along after their popular first two albums, singer Marq Torien keeping things going with a backing group of hired hands. Those early albums were terrific, bluesy pop metal, cock rock with more of a set identity than your usual late-‘80s hair metal, and sadly you hear none of that character on this record. In its place is a band weirdly stuck in 1995, trying desperately to sound contemporary by adding a strong “alt rock” sound, resulting in a record that completely forgets what made this band so likeable way back when. Go listen to the 1988 debut instead. (Spotify.)

Coffins, Perpetual Penance (HPGD)

If you like Coffins’ brand of doomy death metal but don’t have the time nor money to collect the ridiculous number of splits and EPs the Japanese band puts out, this fine compilation will come in handy. Culling material from ten such releases from the past five years, this is 96 minutes of sludgy, crusty filth that, while tiring listening to in one sitting — trust me on that — has plenty of pleasing moments, such as the wonky groove of “The Wretched Path”. This is an odds-and-sods collection well worth looking into. (Spotify.)

Fight Amp, Constantly Off (Brutal Panda)

Just 20 years ago, I would have never considered a band like Fight Amp to be metal, but here we are in 2015, and early-‘90s noise rock, which had a massive influence on metal/hardcore crossover bands in the ’00s, now fits neatly under the umbrella. When the music’s this good, though, who cares what you call it? With their crashing, Albini-esque rhythm section and crusty riffs, the band is a neat little amalgam of noise and grunge-era indie, a throwback to be certain, but an incredibly catchy and energetic one at that. At six tracks, this thing is over in a shot, but this is one you don’t mind setting on constant repeat all afternoon. It’s worth it for “Happy Joyful Life” alone. (Spotify.)

Gorgoroth, Instinctus Bestialis (Soulseller)

One good thing about Gorgoroth ever since Infernus gained full legal control of the band’s name and brand is that the resulting has been impressively lean, vicious, and devoid of frills. Faithfully rooted in traditional Norwegian black metal yet allowing just enough room for more melodic, classic heavy metal influences to creep in, this ninth album is a pleasant surprise, a strong balance of catchy and aggressive. And again, to Infernus’s great credit, he doesn’t overdo things, delivering 31 crisp, bracing minutes of searing black metal, and leaving the listener wanting more. Such economy in extreme metal is so rare, and by taking the “less is more” approach the overall visceral effect of this record is all the more lasting as a result. God Seed, the project helmed by former members Gaahl and King ov Hell, is the more musically interesting band, but this simplified version of Gorgoroth is far more interesting than any album Gaahl made with the band. Funny how that’s all worked out: both parties are doing their own thing, and each is excelling. (Spotify.)

Insect Ark, Portal/Well (Autumnsongs)

The latest album by artist Dana Schechter, best known for her work with Angels of Light, is garnering a lot of praise in indie circles and among the avant-garde crowd, and for good reason. Her atmospheric, minimalist, darkly cinematic instrumental pieces evoke everyone from Guapo, to Ennio Morricone, to Can, to Goblin. In turn, that dark, gothic element will appeal to a lot of metal fans, serving as a soundtrack to someone’s horrible nightmare. There’s not much to these compositions, which are bare-bones at best — drums, drones, and very prominent bass — but the unsettling power the tracks evoke is undeniable, and frankly a little frightening when heard alone in the middle of the night. Not that I was scared by it. No, not at all… stop asking me that. (Bandcamp.)

My Sleeping Karma, Moksha (Napalm)

Like many instrumental metal bands, these Germans like to bridge psychedelic rock, prog, doom, and space rock, but unlike Earthless’s solo-centric compositions and Shooting Guns’s roaring jams, My Sleeping Karma opts for something a lot more sedate, contemplative. The songs do a good job integrating mellow and heavy, but with its warm tone and strong emphasis on ’70s prog, the overall effect is more calming than invigorating. Because it’s so languid, it does have a tendency to meander, but at its best, like on the nine and a half-minute title track, it can be a stirring experience. (Spotify.)

Nightslug, Loathe (Broken Limbs)

If you have a hankering the kind of sludge metal that does its damndest to match — or even top — the gargantuan heaviness of Seattle greats Tad, this second album by the German band is right up your alley. The caveman grooves are pumelling and monstrously thick in tone, but at the same time these grooves move in a way that’s shocking, like seeing a 350-pound offensive lineman show grace and litheness battling in the trenches. With tracks that swing mightily and filthily in early grunge fashion (the spectacular “Vile Pigs”) and more martial sounding moments that bear a striking similarity to Godflesh (“Tainted Throne”), this is a revelation, and must be heard to be believed. (Bandcamp.)

Possession, 1585-1646 (Iron Bonehead)

Much has been made about swastika tattoo-sporting band Bölzer, but the most promising death metal band on the Iron Bonehead label is Belgian outfit Possession, and their new four-song “mini LP” is further reaffirmation. Dense, cavernous, evil-sounding, and slyly catchy, these guys excel at death metal at its most primitive, and unlike so many death metal bands out there, this stuff actually sounds harrowing. Not only that, but the write good songs. Imagine that! “Guilty” will immediately take you back to the early ’90s, when simplicity still dominated death metal and its thrash roots still loomed over the sound. It’d be nice to see if Possession can make this work on a proper full-length album, but when the music’s this good, you’ll take four measly tracks any day. (Bandcamp.)

Tremonti, Cauterize (Fret 12)

The nicest thing that can be said about Mark Tremonti is that he’s done an admirable job escaping the shadow of his former band Creed, putting together a decent body of work that caters more towards mainstream metal. The man can play, and he’s a very good singer — much better than the perpetually yarling Scott Stapp – and his backing band, now featuring Wolfgang Van Halen on bass, is awfully tight, and can crank up the aggression on a dime. The latest Tremonti album has the odd decent moment, but for the most part lack that one song that bursts out as a potential active rock hit. Instead it’s content to cruise down the middle of the road, which is fine — there’s plenty worse new music out there — but for all the skill and musicianship in display, Cauterize still comes up a few good hooks short. (Spotify.)

Third Ion, 13/8 Bit (Glasstone)

Led by former Into Eternity guitarist Justin Bender, this debut by the Canadian band combines the love of progressive metal and videogames, but instead of being the sort of kitchen-sink music you’d expect from such a hybrid, it shows a tremendous amount of discipline. While plenty adventurous — the technicality on display is dazzling at times, and the eight-bit touches are a delight — the hooks are front and center, making the music not only easy to get absorbed by, but a total pleasure to listen to. In addition, singer Tyler Gilbert, while a little mannered at times, shows some impressive versatility, avoiding the whining singing style many young prog bands employ today, instead opting for a style that gives the music strength and gravitas. Like a far less manic Devin Townsend Project, Third Ion’s sense of control throughout this record makes it a very admirable first effort. This is a must-hear for prog fans. (Spotify.)

Head Above Ground

It’s not as if it needed dwelling upon, but I hadn’t bothered listening to the new Asking Alexandria track, which the British band debuted to show off their new singer Denis Shaforostov. It’s Asking Alexandria, after all. But upon hearing “I Won’t Give In”, the more apparent it becomes just how vital a presence former singer Danny Worsnop was. He had steered the band away from cookie-cutter metalcore to an oddly enjoyable metalcore/glam metal hybrid, with that cock rock element adding plenty of exuberance and character to the music. With the new kid at the helm, though, singing in his grating Disney Channel voice (“Will you stay here with may…I watch you slip a-waaaaay”), Asking Alexandria has shown they have no problem going back to scraping the bottom of the barrel instead of showing some damn ambition. Have fun, guys.

Shameless Nostalgia

Turning 20 years old this weekend is Fear Factory’s landmark album Demanufacture. Although plenty of ground had been broken when it came to industrial metal thanks to Ministry and Godflesh, Los Angeles’ Fear Factory wrapped it all in a package that was not only cutting edge for 1995, but perfectly timed with the alternative metal and nu-metal waves, which were both starting to crest. Before then no one had attained the level of nuance Fear Factory did on this record. Not only does the band do a brilliant job capturing that martial, mechanical sound that is so key to industrial metal (drummer Raymond Herrera is so precise in his playing that people often assume the band is using a drum machine), but guitarist Dino Cazares and singer Burton C. Bell also employ a good deal of subtlety amidst such rigid brutality. Melodies ingeniously weave in, out, and around those rigid rhythm tracks, making it sound not only of its time, but eerily futuristic in a dystopian way. A rare album to unite extreme metal fans and mainstream metalheads alike, it spawned a bevy of imitators that carry on to this day (typical of this confounded genre), but with the exception of Strapping Young Lad’s City, no album comes close to matching what Fear Factory did here.

Track of the Week

With Lemmy getting on in his years, and scaring the devil out of all of us with his health alarms, right now we’ll take any new music he and his mates can give us. Rebounding quickly from 2013’s excellent Aftershock, Motörhead will release their 22nd album Bad Magic on August 28, and as a teaser they’ve just put out the first single “Thunder and Lightning”. It’s exactly what you expect from latter-day Motörhead, still heavy on speed, still rife with the life-on-the road clichés everyone loves to hear from Lemmy, not to mention his trademark dry humor (“You won’t get no pussy if you’re in the band”). It’s still brimming with piss and vinegar; Phil Campbell hammers out a snappy little main riff, Mikkey Dee throttles those drums relentlessly. How can you not listen to this, smile, crank it, and put it on repeat for half an hour or more? Hell, that’s what I’ve done writing this blurb just now.

Blabbermouth Headline of the Week


Horns Up: Motörhead, Ghost vs. the Pope in Philly, Otep Shamaya.

Horns Down: Metallica (quit playing festival shows, guys, and record that damn album), bluegrass metal covers (the gimmick is 13 years old, make it stop), idiots who run onstage and the security folks who don’t do their jobs.

Follow me on Twitter at @basementgalaxy.

Follow Blood & Thunder’s rolling 2015 metal tracks playlist on Spotify.