EXTREME / Photo: Jesse Lirola / EARmusic

Hair Metal Is Back in Style Like It’s Going Out Of Style

New albums by Extreme, Y&T and Filter show nothing falls out of fashion anymore. Hair metal is no longer a punchline but a cultural artifact to be appraised.

The Algorithm
Golden Robot
25 August 2023
9 June 2023
Yesterday and Today Live
Metal Blade
9 June 2023

Of all genres of music, it’s 1980s hair metal that arguably best illustrates the power of online culture to breathe new life into long-dead trends. When popular tastes shifted dramatically in late 1991, big-haired rock bands like Extreme were effectively wiped out. The change—though it’s now remembered by journalists and musicians alike as an extinction-level event—didn’t quite happen overnight, however. When Extreme released their ambitious concept album, III Sides to Every Story, in September of the following year, Greg Sandow of Entertainment Weekly hailed the record (with some reservation) as “a masterpiece of musical craft, full of finely-wrought detail—new colors, sudden changes in texture, melodies spawning surprising new versions of themselves—that you’d normally find only in classical works”. 

Not to suggest that Sandow didn’t mean what he wrote, but his review reads like the perspective of someone who felt it was safe to talk about Extreme as if their place in pop culture was here to stay. After all, they had just scored two monster hits the year before, reaching #1 and #4 on the Billboard chart, respectively, with the ballads “More Than Words” and “Hole Hearted”. When the single from III Sides, the more straight-ahead rocker “Rest in Peace”, received airplay on MTV and rock radio in 1993, things were looking up for Extreme. But III Sides sold a fraction as many copies as its predecessor, 1990’s Extreme II: Pornograffitti, which went double-platinum in the US on the strength of the aforementioned singles. 

By 1993, the landscape no longer looked safe for a flashy Eddie Van Halen-inspired guitar shredder like Extreme’s Nuno Bettencourt. Nevertheless, Bettencourt—who has played in Rihanna‘s live band—was armed with an innate gift for shoehorning sophisticated arrangements into tunes that were easy to digest. One could argue that his pop instincts hit their peak with III Sides. Sure, moments on the album resemble the most puffed-up commercial hits from the likes of Winger and Whitesnake. But, if we’re being honest, the distinction between artists gaining and losing credibility at that time wasn’t as clear as we might think. Compare Bettencourt’s guitar heroics to Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, and you’ll find some overlap. (The two groups are scheduled to tour the States, Australia, and Japan together beginning this August.) 

If one wants to argue that Living Colour albums like Time’s Up and Stain (released five months after III Sides) showed more versatility and depth, it wasn’t for lack of trying on Extreme’s part. If you hold III Sides up against an album like, say, Terence Trent D’Arby’s Symphony or Damn—his equally sprawling attempt at an opus, also from 1993—it’s as if Bettencourt and D’Arby (now Sananda Meitreya) were drinking from the same well of inspirations. Both records flaunt, rather than shy away from, pretension. Both largely succeed at presenting outsized concepts as relatable, groove-thumping pop with a hard rock edge (or vice-versa). Alas, the uprising of so-called alternative music was at hand, and Extreme’s days as a going concern were clearly numbered—or so we thought. 

It goes without saying, but a lot has changed in the intervening decades. Case in point: when Extreme released “Rise”, the leadoff single from their new album Six, this past March, Bettencourt’s guitar solo generated something of a viral sensation. Justin Hawkins of the Darkness posted a video titled “Holy F***ing Sh*t. I Can’t Handle This” lauding the solo, while a clip by the popular YouTube commentator Rick Beato analyzing the same solo has, to date, drawn two million views. Beato’s subsequent interview with Bettencourt has been watched over a million times, and the album’s first three videos have, as of this writing, racked up more than seven million views combined. In June, a week after the album’s release, Extreme frontman Gary Cherone told radio host Eddie Trunk that he was “overwhelmed” by the response. 

Meanwhile, YouTube percolated with the usual slate of review and reaction videos from smaller channels that attracted anywhere from hundreds to thousands of viewers. This kind of buzz, though modest, is still noteworthy, and it would have been inconceivable when Extreme released their last album Saudades de Rock in 2008. More generally, if you visit the Full in Bloom YouTube channel, for example, you’ll see that there’s quite a robust appetite for clips about the bands that haunted West Hollywood’s Sunset Strip back in the 1980s. That appetite is apparently strong enough for the Numero Group label to have released a box set priced at $100 titled Bound For Hell: On the Sunset Strip last October. 

Where Full in Bloom dives deep into the minutiae of the hair metal scene, Bound For Hell dives even deeper, with obscure fare from Los Angeles bands like Steeler, Bitch, Rough Cutt, and Odin—a group you might remember from their inauspicious hot-tub appearance in director Penelope Spheeris’ 1988 film The Decline of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years. Spheeris notably approached her subject much as an anthropologist might. Bound For Hell does the same, only with a new twist. Where Spheeris clearly meant for her audience to cringe at the excess of her subjects, Bound For Hell is aimed more at collector types who can’t resist the allure of digging for rarities. 

If the loud haircuts and trashy costumes stick out like a sore thumb alongside Numero Group’s other box sets featuring artists like Unwound, Blonde Redhead, Blondie, and Pastor T.L. Barrett, Bound For Hell makes sense when you consider that the music it documents has taken-on a veneer of coolness. Hair metal is no longer a punchline but a cultural artifact to be appraised. Apparently, yesteryear’s trash has become today’s treasure. On the same day that Extreme’s Six came out, for example, BMG released the five-LP Ratt box set The Atlantic Years. More quietly, Metal Blade Records reissued the 1990 live album Yesterday and Today Live by Y&T—the band Mötley Crüe opened for at their first two gigs at the famed Sunset-adjacent club the Starwood. 

Much like Extreme, it’s somewhat unfair to tag Y&T as “hair metal”—at least in a pejorative sense. Although both bands fit the bill in terms of their appearance, we have to remember that groups at the time ranging from Soundgarden to Anthrax, didn’t do their hair all that differently than the bands their music stood in opposition to. As Yesterday and Today Live shows, Y&T did an admirable job bridging the divide between 1970s arena rock and the heavier strains of thrash. Y&T didn’t reach Extreme’s level of visibility, but it’s not like they’ve been forgotten, either. The reissued Yesterday and Today Live has garnered a smaller share of YouTube clips. Still, a niche demographic of longtime fans, younger fans, and vinyl collectors is bound to take notice. 

It’s a fact of life these days that virtually no events register on a large enough scale that we experience them en masse. By the same token, fans of a particular artist—no matter how small—get to experience whatever that artist does as if it were a cultural earthquake within the sphere of that artist’s following. While the truism still holds firm that outdated trends inevitably come back into fashion, there’s something distinctly modern about how bands like Extreme, Y&T, and countless others across a host of genres have achieved a kind of small-scale immortality. 

In such a climate, media commentators function less as tastemakers and more as observers. If you feel like your tastes separate you from other people because they don’t align with current sensibilities, you’re more likely than ever to find your tribe. In a sense, “cool” no longer exists because nothing is universally uncool. Undoubtedly, some people would complain about this, but it’s hard to imagine why. It’s nice to see musicians enjoying recognition at a manageable level, as opposed to the superstardom that routinely upended lives. It’s hard not to rally behind bands who hang in there long enough to re-claim their relevance, as the alt-industrial act Filter is in the process of doing in the run-up to their next album, The Algorithm, due in late August. 

As the 1990s progressed, Filter were among the bands that stepped in to fill the gap vacated by old-guard groups like Extreme. By the time Filter came out of the gate with their platinum-selling debut Short Bus in 1995, Extreme’s cachet had almost completely waned. Another platinum effort, 1999’s Title of Record, followed. But if Filter and Extreme didn’t appear to have much in common back then, hindsight has highlighted some key similarities. Both groups ostensibly played heavy music, but both hit paydirt by softening their attack and maximizing their commercial appeal, leaving behind a legacy of mostly-heavy albums spiked with a handful of lighter-waving anthems that are way more broadly remembered. In a sense, Filter’s ultra-melodic “Take a Picture” was the “Hole Hearted” of its day. 

Filter recently announced their first album in seven years, titled The Algorithm, due in late August. The album’s third single/video, “Obliteration”, is an electro-metal number with a verse hook so catchy, melodic, and sublime it’s bound to evoke powerful memories of the days when gnashing nu metal anthems just like it dominated terrestrial “modern rock” radio. “Obliteration” may as well be a gift from heaven for people in their teens and 20s during the 1990s—fans who have come to sound an awful lot like Boomers as they wax rhapsodic about how great music was in their day. (I don’t say that disparagingly—I’ve spent many a Friday night pouring my misty-eyed feelings about 1990s music into YouTube comments.)

In the era that Filter emerged, you could have bet your life savings that “Obliteration” would become a hit. You can still bet that Filter will move the needle over the next few months, but what’s most apparent listening to The Algorithm’s singles from today’s perspective—aside from bandleader Richard Patrick’s prodigious songwriting skills—is how subliminally culture shifts over time, even as aesthetic currency might appear to circle back. Indeed, Patrick’s ability to dial in a quintessentially 1990s production aesthetic is no less remarkable for how predictable it’s become. 

If you enjoyed Title of Record and umpteen others of its ilk, The Algorithm is lined up to hit your ears like comfort food. On the other hand, if you once recoiled at a new song like “For the Beaten” because it was too processed, too saccharine, and too targeted for consumption at Hot Topic, you might find yourself embracing those same qualities now. Whether or not Patrick can deviate from his established formula, the new singles show that he has an uncanny understanding of how to play to his audience’s inherent sense of nostalgia. Left to the vagaries of the music industry as it once was, however, Patrick would likely not have gotten many more chances to ply his skills. 

It’s because our methods of consuming music have changed so drastically that artists like him, Extreme, and others are positioned to enjoy late-career surges and remain relevant. For all the havoc that the internet has wrought on society (and on artists), we would do well to take the good with the bad here. Releases like Six, Yesterday and Today, and The Algorithm are just three examples of all the good to be had. As more and more bands and albums avoid the dustbin of history, trends that refuse to die—and the enclaves of community that form around them—should be welcomed as rays of light shining down over an ocean of strife. 

FILTER / Photo: Chapman Baehler