Tuesday, March 10, 2015

1980 - Closing Thoughts


Before I move on to 1981 – I would like to give some final thoughts on 1980, and mention some things that I may have skipped.

Clearly the UK was the metal home in 1980 with 24 of the top 40 records hailing from the UK, including all of the top 11.

Also, 1980 was the year of the debut, with 21 of the top 40 being debuts and 2 more debut solo albums from otherwise experienced artists.

My favorite live album was Black Sabbath – Live at Last.  Not really a great live album, but not bad either.  There were a few noteworthy EP releases, but the only one that really stands out is Hellanbach.  They hail from the UK and their 1980 debut EP; Out to Get You, was a real scorcher.  If it were full length, it would have easily cracked the top 20.

My rookie of the year award goes to Randy Rhoads.  I could have given this to any number of rookies this year, but Rhoads performance on Blizzard of Ozz was legendary.

My MVP is Biff Byford.  Saxon had two albums in the top six, and his strong lead vocals have always been the driver for Saxon.

Finally, my biggest disappointment of the year was actually included in the top 40.  Clocking in at number 31 was the second album from Witchfynde.  It was very disappointing that they caved to the record executives so quickly and became so bland.

So that’s it for the year.  Thanks to my regular readers.  Even though you seem to disagree with me sometimes, your comments are always welcome.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

The Top 40 of 1980 (5-1)

5. Ozzy Osbourne – Blizzard of Ozz

Ozzy Osbourne may be one of the luckiest people who ever lived.  I will give him some credit for being a charismatic singer and personality, and he has some ability to compose pieces of songs that with the help of more talented performers and writers become great songs.  He is also fortunate to have married a ruthless and evil woman who has helped further his career as his limited talent continues to dwindle.

Ozzy has been musically irrelevant for 20 years, but somehow he continues.  This is all not to mention that due to the abuse of drugs and alcohol; the man should be dead 12 times over.  Yes – he is a lucky man.

However, musically, Osbourne’s greatest fortune was when he completely stepped in shit and found Randy Rhoads.  The newly formed band put together two records in one session, and the first of those was Blizzard of Ozz.  Rhoads was an extraordinary talent and the rest of the band (Daisley, Kerslake and Airey) were seasoned pros.   While I am certain Ozzy composed most of the lyrics, the music here was all Rhoads and Daisley.

4. Motörhead – Ace of Spades

Coming off of two terrific 1979 albums, Motörhead was on a roll in 1980.  Enter, Ace of Spades, perhaps their finest hour.  No disrespect to Phil Campbell, but Motörhead was at their best with Fast Eddie Clarke.  Motörhead does not do ballads or epics, they aren’t pretty and they aren’t flashy. They just play good heavy metal with attitude. 

I am not going to say it was all downhill from here, as Motörhead has released many great albums and songs after this, but Ace of Spades is a must have, all time classic.

3. Iron Maiden – Iron Maiden

If the debut from Iron Maiden was all they ever did, they still would have been one of the more accomplished bands from the NWOBHM.  OF course Maiden went on to do much more, but this first album stands on its own quite well.  Produced by Wil Malone, this is one of the better produced albums from all of the rookie bands.  Steve Harris would later complain that the production was bad, but for the time I think it was quite good.

As for the songs, late arrivals Clive Burr on drums and Dennis Stratton on guitar were big upgrades and were the final pieces to making these songs fantastic.  I can only imagine how Phantom of the Opera would sound with only one guitar and Doug Sampson on drums.  This was a terrific beginning to a terrific career from Iron Maiden, and their story still has not been fully written.

2. Black Sabbath – Heaven and Hell

Replacing a presence like Ozzy Osbourne was no easy task.  Despite all of his shortcomings (and there are many) he knows how to front a metal band, and while not a great singer, his distinctive voice was perfect for the music.  Ronnie James Dio was the perfect replacement.  Dio was beyond competent, maybe one of the best singers in metal history.  Furthermore Dio was a true professional.  He was above the childish nonsense spewing from the Osbourne camp (i.e. every show Sharon’s husband would hang a midget named Ronnie).

As for the music – as soon as you put on the record and hear the opening riff of Neon Knights, you know that Sabbath never lost it and this was an album to be reckoned with.  They lose it just a touch with the last track, but the other 7 are all classic metal tracks.

1. Saxon – Strong Arm of the Law

In 1980, Saxon was on a roll, and clearly the class of the NWOBHM.  On the heels of the brilliant Wheels of Steel, Saxon continued to produce the best metal of the year.  The history of this album is a little strange, as it was re-released in the US in 1982, with a different cover and different running order.  The original UK cover and running order is better, so I am unsure as to why Carrere did that.

All eight of the tracks here are great. Sixth Form Girls, Dallas 1PM, and the title track are timeless NWOBHM classics and the remaining tracks are also fantastic. Although the players here are all above proficient, the musicianship will not blow you away here.  The songs are all well written and put together and the sound great. A true gem, and the best album of 1980 as far as I am concerned.

Monday, March 02, 2015

The Top 40 of 1980 (10 - 6)

10. Witchfynde – Give ‘Em Hell

Witchfynde’s debut had it all (except for singing and production, but nothing new there).  The songs were epic and it had an acceptable level of heaviness for the day.  Sure, there are some weak spots, but overall it is very strong.  There are rare occasions where the rawness and underproduction actually works, and while I will not call it an asset, it does not bother me as much here as it does on other albums from 1980 (i.e. Sarcofagus).

It is disappointing that they changed direction so quickly, as they could have become a real metal band had they stayed the course.  They had the unique ability to combine great riffs and more epic pieces into a cohesive record.  They had better riffs than Fist, they were more epic than Diamond Head, and they were heavier than Samson.

Sure the beginning of Leaving Nadir is a bit slow, but the song picks up.  Unto the Ages of Ages is just short of 9 minutes, but it done so much better than many of the epics of the day.  Perhaps the spoken parts in the middle are a bit naff, but the song in its entirety is quite good.  The other 5 tracks are all great metal tracks.

9. Tygers of Pan Tang – Wild Cat

The Tygers were one of my favorite bands of the NWOBHM with three solid released before they went to pot.  This debut is my least favorite of the three, but it is still a classic release.  Jess Cox was certainly not the best singer, but he was at least competent.  The Tygers also had a decent producer in Chris Tsangarides.  I really like the drumming on this record too. I think Brian Dick was an underrated drummer.

The Tygers were not afraid to exceed five and six minutes with their songs and the risk pays off in Killers.  Not so much in Insanity or Slave to Freedom, but both are decent.  The best tracks here are Wild Catz, Suzie Smiled and the aforementioned Killers.

8. Girlschool – Demolition

As a kid, this was one of the many bands I always dismissed.  I guess I was a teenage sexist.  That was a big mistake.  This is an infectious record with lots of riffs, licks and hooks.  Granted, it is not as heavy as some other releases of the day, but it is certainly a metal album. 

Kelly Johnson was a competent guitarist and the rhythm section does a good job as well.  Good vocals and good production compliment a collection of great songs.  There are no epics here, but they don’t waste your time with sappy ballads either.  The best songs are Breakdown, Emergency, Nothing to Lose and the cover song, Race With the Devil.   

7. Judas Priest – British Steel

This album represents a change in style for Judas Priest.  It’s a little hard to describe, but any fan of Judas Priest will acknowledge the difference in sound in British Steel and the subsequent 3 records from the first 5 albums.  I think the change in drummer had a lot to do with it.  Dave Holland was a lot more straightforward and steady, where Les Binks was more creative and progressive in his style.  I am not sure why Binks never caught on elsewhere, especially with the explosion of metal bands in 1980.

Of course in 1980, Priest were veterans in a sea of metal rookies, and it showed as they outshined almost all of the rookies in the class of 1980.  Interestingly, this album spawned three singles.  In my book, those are the worst three songs on the record, and in fact it is those three songs that knock British Steel out of the top 5.  The other six tracks are all timeless metal classics.

6. Saxon – Wheels of Steel

The first of two brilliant Saxon albums to be released in 1980, Wheels of Steel was a giant leap forward from Saxon’s 1979 debut.  There is a great flow to this album and in the days of Side 1/Side 2, I think the 2 sides here are quite distinct, even in the age of CD’s and MP3’s.  Both sides have something to offer, but there is a clear difference.

Side 1 is the one most people will recall.  Motorcycle Man, Stand Up and be Counted, 747 and Wheels of Steel are all Saxon classics.  Side 2 is a little different with Suzie Hold On and See the Light Shining being stand out tracks, but the rest of the side is not as good with “filler” tracks, Freeway Mad, Machine Gun and Street Fighting Gang.

Saxon would continue an uphill climb that would temporarily put them at the top of the NWOBHM pack.  Wheels of Steel  is the beginning of that climb and an all-time great record.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Top 40 of 1980 (15 -11)

15. Diamond Head – Lightning to the Nations

I tend to think this record is overrated.  I think it is overrated because Metallica like it.  Now, don’t get me wrong this is a really solid album and one of the better ones the NWOBHM had to offer, but I do not subscribe to the theory that if they had better management, they would have been as big as Iron Maiden or Judas Priest. 

Diamond Head did write better songs than most of their counterparts of the era, and with the exception of the extraordinarily annoying Sucking My Love – all of the songs on this debut are excellent.  Personal favorites are Am I Evil?, Helpless and the title cut. 

14. Fist – Turn the Hell On

Here we have one of the better debuts of the year.  In the last 4 posts, 15 of the 25 records reviewed were debuts, and there are still more to come.  In fact 3 of the 5 in this installment are debuts.  Turn the Hell On has many of the flaws common with the NWOBHM albums of the era, (spotty vocals, bad production, etc.) but beyond that, this is a really good record.  

One of the things I like about this is that it is really in your face metal, with no let up.  Sure, Axeman is a little weird, but everything else really rocks.  I think Hole in the Wall Gang, The Watcher, You’ll Never Get Me Up (In One of Those), and The Vamp are the best songs, but really no clunkers here.

13. Cirith Ungol – Frost and Fire

The debut from California’s Cirith Ungol is sort of where I draw a line from the merely good to something more extraordinary.  From here in, the rest of the albums on the list are of the “classic” variety.   This album is just so heavy for the time and has that true metal vibe.  Again, weak production holds it back, but the quality of the songs and the playing is undoubtedly professional.

My personal favorites are Frost and Fire, Edge of a Knife and A Little Fire, but each of the 7 songs here has a lot to offer.  As a side note, to me Tim Baker’s vocals sound like Dave Mustaine, but Dave’s career as a vocalist started 5 years after this was released, so if anything, Mustaine sounds like Baker!

12. Rush – Permanent Waves

Rush is not metal.  They never were and they never will be.  So what.  Rush is undeniably one of the most gifted groups of musicians to ever play in the rock genre.  So when looking at metal and hard rock, Rush (particularly of this era) belongs in the discussion.

Permanent Waves is not Rush’s finest moment, in fact, by Rush standards it is in the bottom half.  But on the plus side, this album has two great rockers, two better than average epics and two more songs, one good, one not so good.  All in all a strong release for 1980.  Combine that with all the bells and whistles typical of a Rush album and you have a fine effort.

11. AC/DC – Back in Black

Hailed by many (and they have sales to prove it) as one of the greatest hard rock records of all time, Back in Black by AC/DC needs no introduction.  I agree this is a great record for sure, but it is not without its flaws.  You know all the big hits and even some of the “deep cuts” are great, but this album does suffer from some “sameness”.

Many of the songs blend into each other and sound similar, so we have a situation where I feel like I’m listening to “Shoot to do for Money Into Your Leg’s Drink on Me”.  Maybe that’s a nit-pick.  So, while the Brian Johnson era would get a whole lot worse in the future, for 1980, Back in Black is a classic album, and worthy of much of the praise it receives.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Top 40 of 1980 (20-16)

20. Samson – Head On

Clearly, Samson is best known as Bruce Dickinson’s former band, and for a good reason.  That reason is he is light years ahead of the rest of the band in terms of talent.  Dickinson fronting Samson was like Steve Carlton pitching for the 1972 Phillies, but I digress.  Samson was a blues/rock band that got swept up in the emerging metal scene and Head On had a more metal sound than the previous record.

This is a good album although it fails and falters from time to time.  Paul Samson did not have a real heavy guitar sound and quite frankly was just not a great songwriter.  For me the highlights are the less “popular” tracks like, Take it Like a Man, Manwatcher and Hammerhead.  I think the single Vice Versa goes nowhere and it a glorified blues song, nothing more.  The closer Walking Out on You also meanders and just takes up time and space.

19. Beowulf – Slice of Life

This is a bit of a surprise pick.  Hailing from Los Angeles, Beowulf was a promising young metal band.  Their first and only album, Slice of Life sounds like it could have been out of the NWOBHM, as it had many similar characteristics (average vocals, good guitars, bad production).   Unfortunately, Beowulf could not keep it together and disbanded.

Side 1 is excellent, with Ain’t Getting Any Younger, London Woman and Hideaway.  Side 2 is a little spotty, Getaway is great, but the rest of the album is a not quite as finished and sounds a bit thrown together.

18. Van Halen – Women and Children First

In their early days, Van Halen were lumped in with the heavy metal genre.  Their beginnings as an opening act for Black Sabbath and Eddie Van Halen’s guitar sound were clear indicators of a link to the genre.  The benefit of history tells us Van Halen were never really a metal band, but their real departure from the genre was not complete until 1982’s Diver Down.

Women and Children First is a solid heavy rock album.  There is nothing unexpected here; great guitar, charismatic vocals and slick production.  The best tracks are And the Cradle Will Rock, Everybody Wants Some and Romeo Delight. Of course there are some silly numbers here, but not unusual or completely unwelcome from these guys.

17. Accept – I’m A Rebel

Accept’s second album was their best to date, but they were yet to hit their stride. Udo’s voice on most of the tracks here is in perfect Udo form. The guitars are great and the overall sound is pretty tight.  I think the album suffers a bit from a lack of continuity and cohesion, but most of the songs are good.

They lose me on the ballads (No Time to Lose and The King) and some of the songs are better than others, but overall a real strong effort, especially on the context of 1980.  High points are Do It, China Lady and the title cut. 

16. Brats – 1980

Brats is known to be the first appearance of the terrific guitar tandem of Hank Sherman and Michael Denner of Mercyful Fate fame.   While Brats is a bit punkish and the overall quality is not not quite the Melissa/Don’t Break the Oath level, there are some really good songs here.   There are times here where I feel like I’m listening to Joe Jackson’s vocals superimposed over At the Sound of the Demon Bell.  The shortcomings here are vocals and production (common theme in 1980).  In fact, the singer (who also played bass here) “retired” from singing sometime in the 1980's, and went on to play bass only for some really good bands (Stormwarrior, Iron Savior and Savage Circus).

Zombie People is one of my favorite tracks of the year, and other highlights include Oy-905, Pinned on My Eyelids and Accepted.  The track Heavy Rocker has some great guitar work in the middle, but clocking in at 6:43 it is a bit of an earful.  Start to finish, this is a good record, with only some sections difficult to get through.

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Top 40 of 1980 (25-21)

25. Scorpions – Animal Magnetism

The evolution of metal really helped bands like Scorpions.  I think this evolution helped them find their sound, and while they were still not quite at their zenith, this album is heavier than is predecessors.  Quite frankly, most of this album is not so great and many of the albums mentioned in the earlier posts had more quality songs, but can one song save an album? 

The Zoo is one of the best songs of the year and it clearly the best song on this record.  The rest of the album is OK, with only a couple of more stand out tracks (Don’t Make No Promises and Twentieth Century Man come to mind). 

24. Angel Witch – Angel Witch

The first time I heard this, it was side 1 song 1 – Angel Witch.  It was so bad; I never listened to it again.  Years later, after seeing such high praise for this record, I decided I better give it another try.  Well, it is certainly not an elite release of 1980, but it is not bad either.

I still stand by my original premise that the song Angel Witch is unlistenable, but despite this dreadful track, there are a number of good metal songs here.  Angel of Death and White Witch stand out, but other than the aforementioned title track and Free Man this is a really good metal album.

23. Def Leppard – On Through the Night

I have a personal distaste for Def Leppard, but I must admit they were ahead of most of the pack in 1980.  They had some savvy beyond their years and the procured a top producer for this initial release and he got the most out of these guys.  This album does have a good sound and Joe Elliott is a strong “metal” vocalist.

This album does lack in the music though.  Some of the riffs and licks are good, but Savage and Allen contribute nothing and Willis and Clark are only slightly better.  As a result, well written songs like Rock Brigade, Wasted and the overlong Overture never really take off.  Def Leppard had no choice other than to take the glam path, because musically, they just couldn’t compete with Judas Priest and Iron Maiden.

22. Picture – Picture

Some list this as released in 1980, some 1981 – I choose 1980.  This is another debut, this time from The Netherlands.   Unfortunately, it does suffer from bad production – I wish they would have got Tom Allom instead of Def Leppard.  I think a good producer could have got more out of these guys and these songs.

Rockin’ in Your Brains is another one of my favorite songs of the year.  I also like Dirty Street Fighter, No More and One Way Street, but with the exception of the closer, Fear (a 7 plus minute ballad that goes nowhere) all of the songs here are very good.  The guitar sound is nice and heavy.  I don’t think Jan Bechum is the best player in the world, but he had a great sound here.  The bass and drums move thinks along nicely and van Prooijen is a competent vocalist.

21. Killer – Ready for Hell

Here is another debut album (4th in a row), but this time, from Belgium.  Killer is a three piece that has been called a poor man’s Motörhead, but I really do not care for that moniker, as I think Killer has a different sound.  Killer is straight forward metal – heavy and fast, especially considering the time period.  They have a real crunchy guitar sound that I like.

Of course they do falter every now and then here, but their transgressions are minor and the album does maintain a good flow with no song completely intolerable.  The standout tracks are Ready for Hell, I Know and Backshooter. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Top 40 of 1980 (30-26)

30. The Rods – Rock Hard

I have been critical of The Rods more than once on this blog, and rightfully so.  I find most of their work to be boorish and more of a spoof than Spinal Tap themselves.  But in 1980 they released their first album (limited release), and I am not quite sure they had completely gone down that path yet.  Of course the mini-instrumental, In Your Panties, was a sign of things to come, but in 1980, The Rods were a legitimate metal band, albeit sex, drugs and rock n roll are the main themes.

Despite some really odd choices (a The Rascals cover?) there is some promise here.  Music Man, Power Lover and Crank it Up are among my favorites, but most of the songs here are really good.  The album was re-released in 1981 with a few different tracks and a different running order, but I am going with the original for the review and will skip the 1981 version.

29. Gillan – Glory Road

I really like the guitar work of Bernie Tormé here.  Plus I have always liked Ian Gillan’s voice, so Gillan’s solo work is a no brainer for me.  Sure, there are times here where I think I’m listening to Deep Purple, but this work stands very well on its own.

Unchain Your Brain, Sleeping on the Job and No Easy Way are real highlights, but the rest of this album is very cool too.  Many different types of songs here and most of them are good.  One or two clunkers (If You Believe Me is a little bit much) here, but overall a good record.

28. Sarcofagus – Envoy of Death

A new singer really helped this band out, as Envoy of Death is an improvement over Cycle of Life, released just a few months prior.  While the production is also better, it still leaves something to be desired.

Bottom line is that while this is raw and a bit simple, Envoy of Death was a prelude to more forms of extreme metal and in my opinion is an overlooked album by many fans of the genre.  Insane Rebels is a great song and most of the other are very good.  Unfortunately, the epic Black Contract, clocking in at over 9 minutes is too long and really not good enough to warrant that length, and the album as a whole suffers from that.

27. Quartz – Stand Up and Fight

Stand Up and Fight is a traditional metal album in every sense.  There are no sappy ballads to get in the way, just straight forward metal.  This album surely has its flaws and none of the members of Quartz will dazzle you with their musical prowess.  Nevertheless, I consider this a gem from the NWOBHM and a worthy of being included in any discussion about it.

The title track, Charlie Snow and Rock N Roll Child are my personal favorites and while none of the other songs are busts, none of them are all that great either.  There is a Tony Iommi influence here (he was involved in their first album) but I would not accuse them of being Sabbath clones.

26. Michael Schenker Group – The Michael Schenker Group

Former Scorpions and UFO guitarist Michael Schenker launched his solo career and left his British former band mates in the dust.  While I wouldn’t go as far as calling Schenker a virtuoso, he is still an excellent guitarist.  Plus he has an excellent supporting cast, Simon Phillips is a great drummer, Gary Barden is a quality singer and Roger Glover did an excellent job as producer.

Armed and Ready, Victim of Illusion and Looking Out from Nowhere are all great straightforward rockers, but there are many more layers here, including the excellent instrumental, Into the Arena.