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.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Top 40 of 1980 (35-31)

35. Krokus – Metal Rendez-vous

This was the beginning of the best period of Krokus’ career.  It was after the prog rock 70’s and before the debacle that ensues after Headhunter.  While the inevitable comparisons to AC/DC are valid, I wouldn’t go as far as saying they were cloning Angus and the gang.  There are plenty of good sounds here and I think experience counts.  With so many debuts in 1980, it is refreshing to hear a more cohesive band and the production and song structures are ahead of much of the 1980 competition.
Yes, there are some duds here for sure, but there are several rockers here (Heatstrokes, Come On, No Way, among others) that make this a good record.

34. Sarcofagus – Cycle of Life

Sarcofagus is one of three bands with two releases in 1980. This was the first of the two, and the lesser as well.  While poorly produced and uneven, Sarcofagus clearly had some great doom elements here.  Other than the poor production, the worst part about this album was the vocalist.  I do not recall his name, but he was bad.
This is a concept album and while I will not bore you with the details, I will say that it actually works.  Sure the songwriting is amateurish, but there is a good flow.  Also, like many albums of this era, the guitar sound (while murky due to the production) is nice and heavy.

33. Chevy – The Taker

This is where I drew the line.  This is really impossible to classify as metal, and if the song Chevy were not included on Metal for Muthas, Volume II, I may have never even heard of this band.  Even though it is more Bad Company than Black Sabbath, this record is still a good listen.
I really do not have much more to say, there is nothing really special here, the songs are good and the players are all competent and the vocals are strong.   As a side note, I never realized how many bad singers there were in the NWOBHM until I really listened to so many of these records.

32. White Spirit – White Spirit

Another contributor to Metal for Muthas, Volume II, White Spirit is most famous as the launch point for Jannick Gers of Gillan and Iron Maiden.  Their only album was their self-titled 1980 release.  This album, like many from this year is raw and under produced.  There are plenty of keyboards here and the Deep Purple influence is clear.
While Red Skies is one of my favorite tracks of the year, I really do not love any of the other songs here.  Way of the Kings is weird, and Fool for the Gods is a snooze fest.  The other 4 are quality songs (if you like Deep Purple) but nothing really stands out.

31. Witchfynde – Stagefright

This is the second of two albums Witchfynde released in 1980 and it is clearly a step in the wrong direction.  An unfortunate prelude to so many good and heavy NWOBHM bands listening to the wrong managers and the wrong record executives and trying to change their sound to capture a wider audience.
This is still a good album, but the attempt at accessibility and a commercial sound is overwhelming.  Quite frankly, Steve Bridges was just not good enough a singer to lead a commercially successful metal band.  Even with the watered down sound, I like many of the tracks here like Would Not be Seen Dead in Heaven, In the Stars and Stagefright.  Even the “joke” song Bid Deal is very entertaining.  The ballad at the end, Madeline is a total waste, but despite the many things wrong here, there are also mant things right, so overall, this is pretty sold.

Monday, February 09, 2015

The Top 40 of 1980 (40-36)

40. Sorcery – Till Death do we Part

I was really struggling with what record to put at number 40.  Usually when you see a countdown of this sort, the space between number 39 and 40 is pretty narrow.  Not so here. I was very clear on my top 39, but struggled with which record to put at number 40.  The “best of the rest” Sorcery – Till Death do we Part is an inconsistent and spotty affair.  Sometimes reminiscent of Black Sabbath, other times it is an unlistenable pile of drivel.
It stars with Ogre, a reject from Bat out of Hell by Meatloaf – yeah it has some riff-age, but the piano is so Crocodile Rock.  The next track is a Hawkwind reject.  Then a slower piece – totally forgettable.  Track 4 – Right to Survive, is a step in the right direction, but then the title cut is probably one of the worst songs I can recall hearing in all of my 1980 catalog.  However after this, the album recovers and the remaining tracks are much better.  Still spotty for sure, but there are moments where they really shine.

39. Limelight – Limelight

With a name like Limelight and an opening riff reminiscent of Spirit of Radio, you would be leery of their intentions, but wait – this is 1980.  The song Limelight does not exist and the Spirit of Radio riff is still unknown to these Brits when they wrote this.
Limelight is yet another debut from yet another English band.  Like many of these third tier NWOBHM bands, this was it.  There was promise here.  While the quality of the songs was not as good as most of their countrymen to release full length debuts in 1980, it has its moments.  But with three of the seven songs clocking in at over six minutes and Limelight just not having the songwriting chops for this, the album falls a little flat.

38. Girl – Sheer Greed

Part Glam Metal, Part 70’s rock, part NWOBHM, The debut from Girl shows some promise that would never be realized (this will be a consistent theme here in 1980).  Even if Girl did continue, they would have most likely evolved into a poor man’s Def Leppard (their guitar player would eventually join Leppard), never really being metal, but probably not able to reach the commercial heights of the glam bands of the 1980’s.

The album starts out with some powerful riff, but Hollywood Tease can’t keep up, with its attempt at a catchy bridge and chorus.  I don’t really recall glam metal before this, and quite frankly Girl may have been a pioneer of the sub-genre.  For me though, there are some highlights here.  Little Miss Ann has that LA glam feel, but more credible that Poison or Warrant.  Doctor Doctor and Heartbreak America are similar in that fashion.  The whole album is pretty enjoyable.  Probably too British to be popular in America (The only thing British about Def Leppard was their t-shirt).

Girl is more famous for launching other Glam bands, but this record has place in metal history.

37. Warrior – Let Battle Commence
I had a hard time with this one.  Where do you draw the line between rock and metal?  In 1980, rock was only 25 years old and while metal could claim 10 years since Black Sabbath, it was still very new.  So many hard rock acts were considered here.  One of these is Warrior.  The album cover is very metal (I blame Meat Loaf for metal covers on non-metal albums).  They even have an umlaut! The tempo of many of the songs is metal, but something is missing. Probably overdrive – you know – distortion. Most of the songs are good, but sometimes I feel like I’m listening to Gerry Rafferty when I have this record on.  Calling this metal is a big stretch – so much so, that even three or four years later, I would have dismissed this as AOR.

Don’t get me wrong there is some nice metal sounding guitar work here, and again the tempo is right, but it’s just not heavy enough.  There are traces of it in songs like Warrior and Invaders, but it’s really only in the licks and solos.  The riffs just have no power.  I really think the songs are good here and if this thing got a real facelift, I think it could have been top 20 material, but alas it never gets off the ground.

36. Viva – Born to Rock
Speaking of metal looking record covers, this is far from it.  If I saw this record as a kid, I would have thought it was the Bay City Rollers.  Like the Warrior record described above, this is not the heaviest thing in the world, and may even fall to the hard rock side of the ledger.  Viva was one of the first German metal bands, even if this first album falls short of that moniker. 

Raw, unpolished and not well produced; Viva’s Born to Rock has some highlights. Darkness is real metal track and other rockers like Dark Eyes, Blue Jeans Forever and Fire are strong enough to make you forget some of the slower and sappier moments.  Even the slower tempo in What I Need manages to feel right and metal.  It just goes to show that a good guitar sound goes a long way.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

To EP or not to EP

One of the decisions I need to make in evaluating the music from 1980 and beyond is whether I should consider EP's.  In those days, many bands issues singles and EP's and sometimes either never released a full album or the songs from these EP's and singles never saw a full length release.

The other problem with EP's is many of them are live or cover songs, and thus not really in the spirit of this blog.

So my solution is to name an EP of the year.  This way I can review and enjoy these releases, but not judge them against the full length records.

Friday, February 06, 2015

1980 - Live Albums

There were not many live albums in 1980. 

There were two bands that recorded original material live and released it.  Probably because they did not have the financial support or wherewithal to properly record a debut.  Those were Vardis and A-II-Z.  The Vardis record is the better of the two, but really it is nothing special.

Whitesnake had a live album as well, but I find their early material too bluesy, so not really to my taste.

Reluctantly, Nems' Live at Last performed by Black Sabbath is the best live record of the year.  The sound quality here is about the same as a good bootleg, so nothing great.  Some of the classics are already tired here in 1973 when it was recorded.  The versions of War Pigs and Paranoid offer nothing interesting.  Snowblind sounds ridiculous.  Sweet Leaf and Children of the Grave are marginal at best.

There are some highlights here, though.  Killing Yourself to Live, with alternate lyrics, is great.  This version of Cornucopia is also well done.  The real gem here is the 18plus minute medley of Wicked World.  Other that the requisite Iommi wank-fest, the rest of the 18 minutes is really good old Sabbath playing some great riffs and snippets of their material (Supernaut and Into the Void).