In honor of National Heavy Metal Day (11/11/11), I’ve decided to count down my 10 favorite HM albums. This is highly subjective, both in terms of what I like and what constitutes metal. I’ve stayed away from Teena Marie-isms (Mr. Eddy), although I thought about including Sleater-Kinney’s The Woods. Every one of these titles is probably instantly recognizable to folks around here: I’ve never had much success in deviating off the mainstream for my metal fix. Nor is much of this recent vintage in spite of some effort on my part to find a fresh metal stream to swim in. Enlighten me: It wouldn’t be a decent list if there was no room to squabble.
10. Peter Brotzmann: Machine Gun
9. The Stooges: Fun House
It’s always a challenge to determine how far to go back in a genre exercise. But it does seem to me that there is something about free jazz that served as a spark for what became heavy metal even if its sonic maelstrom was largely expunged from the metal juggernaut going forward—it was a spark that, once the fuse was lit, wasn’t needed for the explosion that followed. At some level bands like the Stooges and the MC5 and early Blue Oyster Cult used distortion and trebly guitar notes to approximate the evanescent epiphany that the best late 60s avant jazz could muster. To me, these two albums are yin and yang, one turning free jazz into proto metal and the other using blotches of quasi-structured atonality to create rock that was not merely heavy. The one element that neither of these records touch, but that becomes a required spice in a lot of heavy metal from late 70s onward, is the progginess of Devotion and Red, both of which just miss my metal top 10.
8. Black Sabbath: Mob Rules
Let me say something that no self-respecting metalhead would ever admit: I really don’t like Ozzy Osbourne in any form. Even more, Black Sabbath Mach I wasn’t all that much in the technical chops department, something that should never be said of any honest metal band. Yet although Sab had got its shit together by the time of Mob Rules, Ronnie James Dio isn’t a natural fit for me—the soaring quasi-Wagnerian metal vocal style that epitomized the New Wave of British Heavy Metal just isn’t my thing. So why I consider Dio an archetype rather than just another metal primo uomo has more to do with the fact that he seemed like a heck of a nice guy rather than anything to do with my particular fascination with the oeuvre. An oeuvre that shakes the walls on Mob Rules, which mostly expunges the lugubriousness and D&D mystagogy that is so closely associated with Sabbath. This is as typico as my tastes in heavy metal go, but when you are talking about monsterous cuts like the darkly wicked “Falling Off the Edge of the World”, the Zeppy “Slipping Away”, or “Mob Rules” itself in all its glory, it’s far enough.
7. Dinosaur Jr.: You’re Living All Over Me
If there is a vibration that echoes late at night over the heavy metal delta, it’s wafts from the thudding bass that amalgamated first in the Brøotzmann octet and quickly became a required ingredient in metal from Sabbath onward. Nearly uniquely among the alterna-punk legion, Lou Barlow plugged into this fuzzed out hammerclaw sound as a mission statement far more provocative and distinctive than J. Mascis’ phased and sped up post-Neil Young guitar. Too frequently lumped with grunge (which they anticipated by half a decade), their roots and construction led instead to a reimagination of metal matched only by Loose Nut/In My Head-era Black Flag in its post-punk fury. With their debut single “Repulsion” and this landmark album, Dinosaur Jr. got the attention of the entire indie-rock kingdom, even if nobody else could really keep up with them. From the opening thump-thump-blast of “Little Fury Things” (with Lee Renaldo screaming in the background) to the Sabbathy “The Lung” to the bass-driven “In a Jar”, this only lets up its metal credentials slightly on the pre-Sebadoh “Poledo” that closes out the LP. (Note that the Merge CD reissue substantially upgrades the SST pressing, and tags on a killer cover of “Just Like Heaven” to boot.) Mascis threw Barlow out of the band after the subsequent album, Bug, for infantile behavior (which says a lot considering the source), and Mascis only approached this level of mastery without Barlow once, on the shimmering Where You Been? But this is a metal cornerstone, making the case that you don’t have to dress up in spandex and sing like Pavarotti on nitrous to be heavy.
6. AC/DC: Powerage
Does anyone not like AC/DC? Were it not for the band’s perverse refusal to release a greatest hits album, AC/DC would be represented in every single record collection in the known universe. Two things about this band. The first is that they’ve never expanded beyond a basic blues structure, insofar as they’ve never needed anything more than pentatonic riffing to bring hell to high order. Second is that, most metal is annoying with all the ego (vocal histrionics, magnum opus guitar solos, etc), whereas AC/DC is 200 proof id. So how do you convince someone who’s never heard AC/DC (say, a Martian) that AC/DC brings it? I have all sorts of hormonal reasons to stick up for Black In Black, which came out when I was 17 (the height of my powers!) and was the first mainstream rock record I went for after selling my Skynyrd and Allman Brothers records in punk/new wave immersion a couple of years before. But however leather-lunged Brian Johnson is, and however much ominous awesomeness the intro to “Hell’s Bells” brings to the party, Powerage is the AC/DC I’m playing for that Martian. Unlike so many other AC/DC records (not Back in Black though), Powerage isn’t just a couple of jewels amid the rock. In fact, none of its tunes have acquired FM-radio classic status, as befits the band’s first fully integrated album of songs. Yet in killer track after killer track (the cognoscenti will stand up for “Sin City”, “Riff Raff”, “Rock & Roll Damnation”) AC/DC move ever so slightly away from the juvenilia of their hit-or-miss formative work. Most importantly, Powerage is the best place to go to understand Mr. Bon Scott. He casts asides like a lecherous old man, when he shouts it’s like a horn player cutting through the guitars, and from start to finish the fun he is having is inescapable. Put it on, turn it up, and power down your frontal lobe for 40 minutes. Good enough for Keith Richards, good enough for me.
5. Slayer- Reign in Blood
If Your Living All Over Me is punk turning metal, then this is the opposite: a standard issue metal band cranks up the BPM, rips apart verse-chorus-verse, and flirts with Wire-esque song lengths, going hardcore on our asses in the process. Some things I note about Reign In Blood: 1) As Slayer tone down the Satanic yammer of their preceding albums, they turn to Mengele for lyrical ruminations instead. 2) Total running time: 29 minutes. 3) Drummer Dave Lombardo (who might as well be named Jackhammer) quit Slayer during the Reign In Blood tour, giving his reason as “I wasn't making any money, I think I had just gotten married.” Insofar as the lyrics of Reign In Blood evoke brutality, it is in service to brutal music, which is why charges that the band equivocates on the immorality of the SS don’t stick. (I mean, please, shouldn’t it be required to actually read the lyrics through once before throwing Nazi daggers into the air?) So yes it’s all here—headthumping tempos, death-defying interlocking guitar, guttural inchoate vocals that track a provocative lyric sheet, all of which (excepting the lyric sheet itself) fit on one side of a cassette at the time of Reign In Blood’s initial release in 1986. Metallica, Anthrax, Megadeth-- they all should have called it quits after this appeared. In fact, the only thing that holds a candle to this is Ministry’s Psalm 69 runefest, which arrives in a place similar to Reign In Blood even if its raw ingredients are different. So let’s give some love for the man who melded this all together—Rick Rubin, who has got to be the only record producer who can claim to his credits classic albums in three genres as dispersed as hip-hop, metal, and country. Do the Avett Brothers count as boy band? Holy moly.
4. Dio: Holy Diver
I instinctively disliked this record for most of its existence. But I enjoyed it when the That Metal Show guys put it number one on their best-of heavy metal this-or-that lists. Not because I was being kitschy, I just got a kick out of these ingratiating metalheads having opinions so obviously divergent from my own. I say I disliked this album instinctively because I barely ever heard it, certainly not all the way through. I turned the sound off when the Dio videos popped up on MTV. Nothing could be worse than a histrionic European (well he sang in Rainbow and Sabbath but I didn’t know he was actually from New Hampshire) singing songs of Satan over clunky sub-Paranoid guitar churn. So then RJD up and died through no fault of his own, and come to find out the guy was a saint. A champion. A passionate metal crusader. So I bought a copy of Holy Diver on Amazon for next to nothing to have what was definitely intended to be a kitsch-fest. And boy did I feel embarrassed and stupid when I fell in love with the CD first time through. It opens with Motorhead-worthy riffage, the sound is stripped down for circa 1983 metal, sparing on the guitar overdubs, and let’s give some serious props to the drummer, Vinnie Apice, who is just totally wicked here. But the songs are what really sell this album. Without ever deviating from post-NWOBHM orthodoxy, RJD (who produces here as well as singing and writing) carefully structures his songs around awesome chord changes (the riff that drives “Gypsy” is power pop-ready), sing-along chants (“Holy Diver”), and—wait for it—hooks galore (“Caught In the Middle”, “Rainbow in the Dark”). If you require some suspension of disbelief to get through the vocals and lyrics here, then so be it; underneath that is a glorious testament to a heavy metal hero.
3. feedtime- Shovel
OK, the genre of music here is open for debate. Fist-to-skull music? Gadget-core? Offal rock? This is the only album I know of that makes Hüsker Dü’s Metal Circus sound like the Osmond Brothers. (I lie. Actually Black Vinyl Shoes.) By virtue of thy oppressively brutal disinterest in anything other than ROAR!, oh Shovel I deem thee most metal. And about that, the music nerd in me wants to ask, so what’s up with all this monolithic threnody? All three of you guys are from Australia, right? I mean, I know other bands from Australia, like this one from Brisbane that you don’t really sound like, so where did all this BRAACCGGHBLAMBLAM come from? Also, do you hog-whip people at your shows? Because it sounds like you might and that scares me. And what exactly do you need the shovel for anyway? So yes we have a band here who wield distorto-stun bass along with fuzzed out guitar (played out of tune and with a bottleneck, nice touch man) and ferociously monotonous drumming at the service of lyrics that are totally incomprehensible but delivered with a passion that borders on biker speed psychosis. There is no point in distinguishing one song from another with regard to any measure of quality other than to say that there is a band of silence in between each one. This is heavy metal forged from one indefinitely repeated 4/4 measure of free jazz but tempered with layers of distortion, obdurate unirhythm, and a dynamic range of 3 full tones on the pentatonic scale. Plus live raccoon skinning going on in the background. I play Shovel whenever I hate people. I play this a lot.
2. Led Zeppelin- Presence
The folks who argue that Led Zeppelin doesn’t count as “heavy metal” make the point that Zep was too stylistically diverse for the category, but in reality it’s because those folks haven’t given this staggeringly cacophonous album the attention that it deserves. Framed by the twin tragedies of Robert Plant’s car accident (he recorded the vocals for Presence from a wheelchair) and his 5-year old son’s unexpected death, and recorded and mixed in less than three weeks, Zeppelin stripped their music down to the raw essence of the band: Jimmy Page left his acoustic guitars behind at Boleskine House and Plant banished the faeries to the moors before coming to the studio. What is left is an extended colloquy between Page’s army of guitars and John Bonham polyrhythmic traps on the topic of relentlessness. Whereas Bonham used to mess around with the 3rd and 4th beats of a measure, here he is all in front (which is why for the first time Zep’s once-per-album James Brown homage doesn’t sound like a parody). Bonham’s drums are the lead instrument for “Achilles’ Last Stand”—pay attention to how he sets the pattern of the song during the push-pull intro, goes across that rhythm during the first part of Page’s guitar solo, and then brings those two elements together as the song winds down. Or listen to how he takes control of the harmonica interlude in “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”. Bonham’s ride-the-Furies onslaught showcased on Presence became a defining feature of New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands, and it’s not even the coolest thing going on here. Because that would be Jimmy Page’s quasi-Nordic guitar work. Recording all of the overdubs in one 18-hour session (how did those guys do that kind of thing back then?), Page creates a trebly, chiming and churning guitar sound that, when the ensemble sections all come together, sounds like a black metal Basie band. Presence may not be the best Zep album ever (that would be Physical Graffiti), but by toning down the chutzpah and stripping away the filler, it is their most singularly metal moment.
1. Motorhead- Ace of Spades
I’m not sure how best to set the table for this musical fast food epiphany except to say that it’s the ultimate heavy metal meal. N=1 in a Venn diagram that includes punk, all forms of metal, British cowboys (who bring with them a soupçon of Nazi curiosity, take it as it is), teeth-grinding people bored by silence, short-wave radio enthusiasts trying to track down marooned WWII survivors who don’t exist, and people who survive head injury without long-term sequelae. Ace of Spades is that adrenalized moment in a roller coaster ride where the cart you are in starts going down the steepest descent, repeated over and over. The one aspect of heavy metal that trips so many people up is the sense that you have to buy in, at least a little bit, to a shared fantasy: the phantasmagoric lyrics, the outfits, the melodrama. But that is not even close to being the case here. Motorhead is about getting down to business: Set your briefcase down, unlock it, pull out the sawed off Remington Model 11, and start shooting. And every single song they shoot out here is a classic. The slowest one, “The Chase Is Better Than the Catch”, would rock out 99% of the metal world, “(We Are) The Roadcrew” is tribute song-as-thunderclap, and there is no catching up to speed metal like “Ace of Spades” itself. It would be a shame to call this heavy metal for people who don’t like heavy metal: Ace of Spades still has every element that the chains-and-maloik crowd demands. This is the great shining moment where it all comes together. ‘Nuff said. Turn it up!