A Crash Course in Heavy Metal for Neophyte Heshers
If ever there was a genre anthology just begging to be picked apart and criticized by obsessive fans, it’s a metal collection; Rhino's The Heavy Metal Box, an introduction to the music circa 1968-91, gets its share of disassembling, here.
In this day and age, with all forms of music extremely accessible, be it through legal or not-so-legal means, genre anthologies and best-of compilations just don’t seem to be as necessary as they once were. After all, anyone these days can toss out what they feel is a definitive mix and either burn it on to CD or upload it on to an iPod, for either themselves or to edify interested friends. And if you don't know anybody who has the kind of tunes you're interested in learning more about, it's never been easier to do it yourself.
For instance, if you're a longtime indie rock fan who wants to broaden your music collection and cull together some of the most definitive heavy metal songs ever recorded, all you need is a peer-to-peer application, and you're ready to go. You only then have to read up on what songs from which albums you have to track down, search for them, download them all (all at a consistent bitrate, if you're nitpicky), make sure the sound quality is decent, confirm that you have all the good remasters and none of the crappy remasters, tag them properly to keep them organized... aw, screw it, what's the harm in shelling out 60 bucks for Rhino's four-disc set? And did you check out the kick-ass packaging?
If ever there was a genre anthology just begging to be picked apart and criticized by obsessive fans, it's a metal collection, and in the wake of such pleasing recent box sets as Left of the Dial: Dispatches From the 80s Underground, One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost and Found, and A Life Less Lived: The Gothic Box, the much more economically titled The Heavy Metal Box boldly attempts to deliver a definitive chronicle of the sound's development from 1968 to 1991. No mix can ever be perfect, but despite the fact that this collection has some gaping holes and questionable inclusions, the set nevertheless does a surprisingly impressive job giving neophyte heshers a crash course in classic, old school metal. However, that doesn't mean we're not going to get our hands a little dirty here, and pick out the chaff from the wheat. After all, that's what we metalheads love to do.
"WHAT IS THIS THAT STANDS BEF-... uh, hello?"
Photo: Mark Weiss/Courtesy of Warner Bros. Records
The origins of heavy metal have always been debated over. The great countercultural satirist William Burroughs created the character "Uranian Willy, the heavy metal kid" in his 1964 novel Nova Express, the phrase "heavy metal" subsequently quoted in Steppenwolf's 1968 single "Born to be Wild" ("I like smoke and lightning / Heavy metal thunder"), and was later used to describe the visceral force of the harder rock music at the time, the new term popularized by critic Lester Bangs. Bands started focusing on the more aggressive and sometimes darker side of bluesy rock, from the Kinks, to Cream, to Vanilla Fudge. The sounds got louder, the drums more forceful, the guitar squeals more abrasive. It was a gradual evolution, and somewhere between 1965 and 1970, the proverbial seed was planted, but the very first record, the very first song, the very first riff that in the minds of many, including yours truly, came to define heavy metal as we know it today, came from Black Sabbath's eponymous 1970 debut. Side one, track one. The opening riff. G, C sharp. The classic tritone, diabolus in musica. The Devil's Note.
But that song, the earth-shattering "Black Sabbath", is not on this box set. In fact, no selections from Black Sabbath's seminal first six albums are present at all, the most grievous omission conceivable, and we're only on Disc One. One has to suspect there were licensing hassles when it was time to compile the set (I won't even get into the similarly absent "Communication Breakdown" by Led Zeppelin), but it's a tough pill to swallow.
However, what we do get on the first disc is a respectable look at metal's formative years. The relatively tame Iron Butterfly staple "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" (sans drum solo, mercifully) and Blue Cheer's wicked psychedelic rendition of "Summertime Blues" are dutiful nods to the '60s, and after that, we're off to the races. Uriah Heep and Deep Purple bring the Hammond B3-driven ferocity of "Easy Livin'" and "Highway Star" respectively. Alice Cooper's brilliant melding of glam rock and shock rock is represented by "Billion Dollar Babies", while Montrose's "Bad Motor Scooter" (featuring a young Sammy Hagar), Ted Nugent's leering "Cat Scratch Fever", and Kiss's ubiquitous "Detroit Rock City" foreshadow the pop metal explosion of the early '80s.
Alice Cooper - Billion Dollar Babies
Three of the most important second generation metal acts are present in the form of UFO's Michael Schenker-led "Lights Out", Judas Priest's operatic "The Ripper" from 1975's watershed Sad Wings of Destiny, and Rainbow's classic song from the same year "Man on the Silver Mountain", the latter of which marking the first of three appearances by the great Ronnie James Dio. The late '70s explosion of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (or the rather silly acronym "NWOBHM", for short) kicks off with "Demolition Boys" by the first, and greatest, all-female metal band Girlschool, Angel Witch's "White Witch" from their highly influential debut album, and best of all, Iron Maiden's multifaceted "The Phantom of the Opera", the first of what would be many epic tunes by the most epic metal band of all time. The mighty Sabbath finally gets a mention at the very end, but the one song is a gem, the chugging "Neon Knights" from 1980's classic Dio-led Heaven and Hell, so all is not lost.
Disc One sets the tone early, insisting it will only pay a passing glance to the underground scene, and while the exclusion of crucial lesser-known bands like Pentagram, Sir Lord Baltimore, Budgie, and Groundhogs will raise the ire of some, Rhino has wisely avoided becoming muddled in the more repetitive sounds, keeping things diverse. Especially impressive is inclusion of Hawkwind's "Lost Johnny", featuring a pre-Motörhead Lemmy Kilmister on vocals on one of the band's rare songs that clock in at less than four minutes. The most glaring omissions, aside from early Sabbath and Zeppelin, include Ireland's Thin Lizzy and Germany's Scorpions, the latter of whose '70s output is vastly underrated these days, while the disc's most questionable song choice is Rush's fun yet primitive "Working Man", which would have been better replaced by 2112's much more accomplished "Overture/Temple of the Syrinx". Despite the bumpy beginning, though, things level off quickly, and we're quickly cruising, as we brace ourselves for the craziest, most thrilling three-year period in the genre's history.
"Am I evil? Yes, I fucking am."
Photo: Ross Halfin/Courtesy of Elektra Records
Even when you listen to it today, the transition from the initial waves of heavy metal to the sounds of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal is nothing short of stunning. Young UK bands were, of course, hugely indebted to the massive style of Sabbath, the increasingly intricate arrangements of Judas Priest, the grandeur of Rainbow, and the speed of Motörhead, but what they brought more than anything else was a sense of youthful energy to what was often an overly pompous and lumbering genre. They were fast, they were flashy, they brought in brilliantly marketed logos (to partially compensate for the lack of expensive cover art), and they had an incalculable influence on the metal scene for the rest of the decade. To their great credit, Rhino does a fantastic job acknowledging the scene on this set, and highlights what is a damn near perfect Disc Two.
After Motörhead's immortal "Ace of Spades", the young blood takes over the rest of the way. Diamond Head's proto-thrash epic "Am I Evil" is one of the greatest metal songs of all time, and would go on to be famously covered by a bunch of slovenly California headbangers calling themselves Metallica, as would Blitzkrieg's hard-charging "Blitzkrieg". Tygers of Pan Tang's "Gangland" is highlighted by Jon Deverill's fiery lead vocal performance, Venom's uber-Satanic shtick shifts into clunky overdrive on the shambolic but fun "Witching Hour", and Saxon's calling card, the anthemic "Denim and Leather", for all its lyrical simplicity, perfectly encapsulates the "us versus them" mentality that makes metal so enticing. Fastway, led by former Motörhead guitarist "Fast" Eddie Clark and former UFO bassist Pete Way (get it?), bring the swaggering "Say What You Will" (featuring a pre-Flogging Molly Dave King), the Michael Schenker Group, helmed by the former UFO/Scorpions axeman, continues right where "Lights Out" left off on "Attack of the Mad Axeman", and the eccentric style of Newcastle's oft-overlooked Raven ("Star War") is an especially inspired choice.
Motörhead - Ace of Spades
Heavy Metal was fast spreading outside the UK and America, exemplified nicely here. Australia's Rose Tattoo continues to build to the LA cock rock sound with "Nice Boys", a song which would eventually be covered by Guns N' Roses in 1988. Meanwhile, a quirky Danish band called Mercyful Fate would take the devil worship gimmick to a disturbingly serious level, anchored by the flamboyant guitar duo of Michael Denner and Hank Shermann, and fronted by the kabuki-faced, falsetto-spewing King Diamond, the song "Black Funeral" capturing the skin-crawling vibe of 1983's seminal album Melissa.
After a pair of ubiquitous tracks by the now-globally famous Judas Priest ("You've Got Another Thing Comin'") and Iron Maiden ("The Number of the Beast"), the focus shifts to America. Ronnie James Dio (there he is again), featuring young NWOBHM product Vivian Campbell on guitar, snarls on the stately "Holy Diver", Seattle's Queensryche puts an adrenalin-fueled spin on Priest's signature sound on "Queen of the Reich", San Francisco's Y&T, one of the country's best melodic metal bands before label pressure forced them to water down their sound, are ferocious on "Mean Streak", and in a move that must be applauded for its sheer audacity, W.A.S.P.'s shock rock classic, Tipper Gore pisser-offer "Animal (F**k Like a Beast)", is included. Fittingly, everything comes full circle with Metallica's "Whiplash", which takes that NWOBHM sound and injects it with a distinctly American combination of hardcore punk ferocity and snarky arrogance.
Of course, there were so many NWOBHM bands that it would be easy to quibble over who was left out, from Witchfinder General, to Samson, to Sweet Savage, to Grim Reaper, to Witchfynde, to Holocaust, but the most obvious absentee is Def Leppard, whose early material led the UK charge along with Iron Maiden at the onset of the decade, and whose Mutt Lange-produced Pyromania lit the spark that would ignite the 80s pop metal explosion. New York band Riot is also conspicuously absent, but in all honesty, you can't put together a better 80 minute mix chronicling the same time frame as the one that's here.
"Let's plug a bomb in everyone's ass."
With both mainstream metal and the underground scene hugely popular and evolving at an exponential rate, The Heavy Metal Box comes to a fork in the road after "Whiplash". And while it quickly becomes very clear the focus from here on in will be on the more pop-oriented side, at the very least we are given token acknowledgments of the more extreme sounds. Despite the fact that we can't help but wish there was a more even balance between the melodic and the visceral, and again, there are some huge omissions, the third disc still packs a pretty mean punch. Just try not to choke on the Aqua Net fumes.
1983-84 was the turning point as far as heavy metal's popularity went, as a bevy of singles, now classic rock staples, won over a generation of youngsters, and the period is succinctly sampled with a string of rawk staples: Scorpions' lovably nonsensical "Rock You Like a Hurricane", Quiet Riot's "Metal Health", Ratt's slick "Round and Round", and Twisted Sister's jubilant "I Wanna Rock", give us equal parts muscle, melody, and fun. This also marked the era of the shredder, and we get two of the best lead guitarists of the era in the form of Dokken's George Lynch (on "Into the Fire") and the flashy Swede Yngwie Malmsteen, who unleashes the fury on the proto-power metal classic, "I'll See the Light Tonight".
Scorpions - Rock You Like a Hurricane
Metal's continuing global appeal is represented by some stellar selections again. Japanese veterans Loudness scored an inexplicable breakthrough hit with their goofy yet wickedly catchy "Crazy Nights", while Germany's Helloween ("A Little Time"), led by the soaring voice of Michael Kiske, paved the way for 1990s power metal, and Switzerland's Krokus, one of the tackiest bands of the era, is at the very least represented by one of it's least lame singles ("Midnght Maniac"). Led by the flamboyantly androgynous Michael Monroe, Finland's Hanoi Rocks predated the glam/sleaze metal movement by a good five years, and the Bob Ezrin-produced "Boulevard of Broken Dreams", arguably their finest track, bombed commercially, but has aged incredibly well. Best of the lot though, and earning this writer's nod as the greatest metal track of the 1980s, is Accept's "Balls to the Wall", as the German quintet, led by the snarling, fatigues-clad hobbit Udo Dirkschneider, launches into a surreal, post-apocalyptic tirade against political oppression.
Anthrax - Caught in a Mosh
We are given a passing glance at the American thrash scene, from Anthrax ("Caught in a Mosh"), to Megadeth ("Peace Sells"), to New York's Overkill ("Wrecking Crew"), and Metal Church's great ballad "Watch the Children Pray" is a nice touch, but it's barely the tip of the iceberg. Thrash innovators Exodus are nowhere to be seen, nor are their Bay Area brethren Death Angel and Possessed. The German thrash sound is completely ignored, as Kreator, Destruction, and Sodom are all AWOL. Fates Warning, who paved the way for Dream Theater a decade later, is ignored. French Canadian eccentrics Voivod were a massive influence on '90s bands like Tool, but are absent, as are Swiss legends Celtic Frost, who combined ornate arrangements with new levels of musical brutality.
On the more accessible side, Disc 3 is missing key acts like Ozzy Osbourne and Mötley Crüe, and comes to a screeching halt midway through with a pair of dubious song choices. Spinal Tap's "Big Bottom" is a novelty classic, ingeniously lampooning metal's famous misogyny, but musically, it had no impact on the genre whatsoever, and would have been better off replaced by a track by Stormtrooopers of Death, a funny band who had a major influence on the bridging between thrash metal and hardcore punk. Stryper's tepid Christian anthem "To Hell With the Devil" is a just plain lousy selection; a B-level pop metal band at best, the Christian side of the genre should have been represented by Chicago "white metal" doomsters Trouble. The longer the 1980s wore on, the more diverse metal music became, and if you thought this CD had to have been a challenge to compile, just wait until the crazy five year period that lays ahead.
"May your swords be wet, like a young girl in her prime."
By the summer of 1987, "hair" metal was in full flight. Bon Jovi, Cinderella, Europe, and Poison exploded in popularity the previous year, LA's Sunset Strip was home to myriad bands and audiences with big riffs and even bigger coifs, and things were only going to get nuttier. Mötley Crüe, despite coasting along with a pair of incredibly lazy albums, was more popular than ever. Def Leppard overcame enough adversity to last a lifetime during the recording of the blockbuster Hysteria. In an inspired and lucrative move, 1970s blues-rock geezers Aerosmith and Whitesnake would tart up their sounds with slick '80s production and pop hooks galore, and unload records in the millions. And a certain band of SoCal sleaze rockers, even more badass than the Crüe, with a ton of major label hype behind them, would take LA glam back to the gutter where it belonged.
A little of the 1986-87 hair metal goes a long way, and despite the fact that only five, maybe six tracks fall under that dubious category, the deeper we get into The Heavy Metal Box, the more it feels like Rhino's preoccupation with the sound is bordering on obsessive. Nonetheless, it's a key point in time for the genre, when the divide between its mainstream and the underground was ever-widening, and the songs they slap on to Disc Four, are, for the most part, welcome additions.
Whitesnake - Still of the Night
Though David Coverdale's Whitesnake benefited greatly from the slender stems of Tawny Kitaen on the band's three videos that year, the real secret weapon was in fact former Tygers of Pan Tang and Thin Lizzy guitarist John Sykes, who provides an absolute mammoth of a Zeppelin riff for the stupendous "Still of the Night", serving as Page to Coverdale's Plant. Just as Zep-obsessed were LA veterans Great White, and the brooding blooze epic "Rock Me" is a far better indication of their chops than the rather trite cover of "Once Bitten Twice Shy" would be two years later. Poison, with their Vogue-style album cover and overall weak sound, emphasized fun over chops, and sporadically, as on their breakthrough single "Talk Dirty to Me", it worked surprisingly well. The inclusion of Faster Pussycat's sleaze classic "Bathroom Wall" is a great one, but Gun N' Roses, no matter how sick we all are of "Welcome to the Jungle", are dubiously absent. While Lita Ford was an object of fantasy for teen boys that entire decade, her synth-heavy "Kiss Me Deadly" is not heavy metal at all and has no business being on this set.
Mercifully, Disc Four settles down for some real metal for the rest of the way. Led by brothers Jon and Criss Oliva, Florida's Savatage brought an operatic edge, and 1987's "Hall of the Mountain King" is one of several creative peaks the band would experience prior to Criss's tragic death in 1993. As mentioned, the Bay Area thrash scene is woefully underrepresented, but a bone is thrown our way in the form of Testament's high-octane cruiser "Trial by Fire". King Diamond makes another appearance with his infamous "Welcome Home" (everybody: "GRANDMAAAA!"), Metallica's legendary "One" shows how cutting-edge the thrash metal scene had become, and Slayer's massive, sinister "South of Heaven" is a good choice to introduce neophytes to the greatest extreme metal band to walk the earth.
Manowar, hugely popular everywhere but North America, was cheesy by even '80s standards, but they were always capable of the odd classic track, and the battle anthem "Hail and Kill" is their greatest moment, shtick and power melding into one truly crazy-ass power ballad-turned-swashbuckler. Living Colour's "Cult of Personality" combined more Zeppelin riffs with a nasty funk edge and astute social commentary, and conversely, Skid Row's "Youth Gone Wild" bellyached convincingly about how much it sucked being a teenager. The set ends on an especially strong note: in 1989, Dallas's Pantera ditched the hairspray in favor of emphasizing the huge guitar sound of "Diamond" (soon to be "Dimebag") Darrell Abbott, and shocked the metal world with the psychotic boogie of "Cowboys From Hell". New York trio Prong foreshadowed the '90s alternative metal trend with the wonky, brilliantly-produced "Beg to Differ", and Brazil's Sepultura takes the thrash sound into a more extreme direction on 1991's fluke MTV hit "Dead Embryonic Cells".
Metallica - One
Of all the discs, the most striking omissions are on Disc Four, but again, considering the rate at which the genre was expanding, there's no way to perfectly encapsulate it all. So, unfortunate as it seems, that means, along with Gun N' Roses, we don’t get snapshots of the nascent Florida death metal scene (Death, Morbid Angel, Obituary), the great Swedish black metal progenitors Bathory, grindcore legends Napalm Death, doom greats St. Vitus, industrial metal innovators Godflesh, underrated blues rockers Badlands, Swedish death 'n' rollers Entombed and Grave, and UK death phenoms Carcass and Bolt Thrower. Then there's Nuclear Assault, Atheist, Faith No More... as you can see, the list can go on and on, and it was wise of Rhino to keep things from flying off the handle.
If you're new to metal, though, for all The Heavy Metal Box's flaws, it's a very well-assembled introduction to the world of heavy metal circa 1968-91, a sound that was much more diverse than you might expect. If you're already a lifelong metal fan, and think you can do better, by all means, go ahead and make your friends your own metal compilations. As a genre that continues to thrive under the radar of the mainstream media, it's always been built on strong word of mouth. We can never have enough new blood, so rip and burn away, and spread the word. Just make sure to include "Black Sabbath".