Friday, 10 February 2006

A History of Heavy Metal Part Five: Fell on Black Days

From the beginnings of the British New Wave of Heavy Metal in the late Seventies, heavy metal's rise in popularity into the Eighties was very gradual. By no means did it happen overnight. On the other hand, its decline in popularity in the early Nineties seemed to me to be swift and final. Creem once more shifted its focus, this time from heavy metal bands to the grunge bands then becoming popular. In 1994 MTV cancelled The Headbanger's Ball. Many heavy metal bands lost their contracts. Older, established heavy metal bands broke up.

I suppose of the causes of heavy metal's decline in popularity is debatable. There are some who have theorised that metal's fall in popularity may have largely been due to the emergence of grunge, in the form of such bands as Nirvana and Pearl Jam. While I suspect that the rise of grunge may well have been a contributing factor in heavy metal's decline, by no means do I think it was the only cause. An equally important cause, perhaps more imporant, was the fact that as the Eighties became the Nineties many of the older, established heavy metal bands either broke up or changed personnel. In 1991 vocalist Rob Halford left Judas Priest and the band never quite recovered. Throughout the Eighties, Black Sabbath had changed personnel to the point that the only original member left was Tony Iommi. With no new heavy metal bands that could quite fill the void left by legendary groups, it is perhaps no wonder the genre went into decline.

Of course, I suspect the primary reason that heavy metal delcined in popularity was that a simple case of overexposure. From the release of Def Leppard's Pyromania in 1983 into the early Nineties, heavy metal had enjoyed unprecedented popularity. Indeed, there was point where it seemed as if any guy with a guitar, long hair, makeup, and leather pants could get a record deal. After literally dozens of heavy metal bands had emerged over the decade, people were perhaps simply ready for a change. In other words, the public was simply tired of heavy metal.

This is not to say that heavy metal died out completely. Metallica and Megadeth continued to be popular in the new decade. New heavy metal bands did rise and even become popular. One heavy metal band that grew yet more popular in the Nineties was one that is now, in my humble opinion, often misidentified as grunge. Soundgarden was formed in 1984 by lead singer Chris Cornell and bassist Hiro Yamamoto. They released their first album for a major label, Louder than Love, in 1989. Their sound was obviously influenced by both Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, with a touch of MC5 thrown in for good measure. They sounded more like classic heavy metal than many then current heavy metal bands. In fact, they sounded more like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin than they did Nirvana and Alice in Chains. I always thought that the identification of Soundgarden as grunge was simply a marketing ploy. They're from Seattle. Heavy metal is declining in popularity. Let's call them grunge! Curiously, they were identified as heavy metal upon their debut... Regardless, they remained popular until their break up in 1996.

Another heavy metal band that maintained its popularity in the Nineties was Pantera. Pantera had actually been around since 1981, but did not see any real success until their album Cowboys from Hell. They were the leading proponents of a form of heavy metal called groove metal. Groove metal is perhaps best considered thrash metal in which drums and vocals are emphasised over guitar riffs (what riffs there are tend to be slow or mid-tempo). While Pantera remained popular through the mid-Nineties, they appear to have been one of those bands one either loved or hated (I hated them myself). The band was criticised for allegedly taking their groove metal sound from New Orleans based Exhorder. Dave Mustaine also accused Pantera of ripping off Megadeth. The band broke up in 2001. Sadly, their former lead vocalist, Darrell Abbot, would be murdered by a crazed fan in 2004.

Many debate whether Guns 'N' Roses is a hard rock band or a heavy metal band. I always saw them as a heavy metal band in the Aerosmith mode (although quite a bit meaner). From their debut album Appetite for Destruction, Guns 'N' Roses were a success. Unfortunately, internal tension towards the mid-Nineties would result in changes in the personnel of the band. This in turn would put an end to GNR's success. Currently Velvet Revolver(formed by former GNR members) sounds more like GNR than Guns 'N' Roses does.

While a few bands survived and even thrived into the Nineties, new bands also arose and even became popular. This was the case of Monster Magnet. Monster Magnet was formed in 1989 by vocalist Dave Wyndorf, guitarist John McBain, drummer Tom Diello, and bassist Tim Cronin. Their first album Spine of God, was relesed in 1991. Monster Magnet was quite literally a throwback to the early days of heavy metal. Their sound combined elements of early Black Sabbath with elements of Hawkwind. The subject matter of their songs sometimes tended towards the fantastic. In the song "Melt" they make reference to the late Jack Kirby (one of their idols), while Marvel Comics character Modok is mentioned in the song "Baby Gotterdammerung." Like Blue Oyster Cult, Monster Magnet is a heavy metal band for geeks.

While Monster Magnet was enamoured of classic Marvel Comics, White Zombie was enamoured of classic horror movies. Indeed, their name comes from the classic horror movie of the same name. Formed in 1985 by Rob Zombie, the band's major label debut was La Sexorcisto: Devil Music, Vol. 1, released in 1992. The band was characterised by a heavy bass sound and imagery that could have been drawn from any number of movies from Universal in the Thirties. The band remained popular until their breakup in 1998, after which Rob Zombie launched a successful solo career (keeping his midnight movie image in tact). They were among the best metal bands of the Nineties.

Of course, White Zombie were not the only heavy metal artists in the Nineties to draw upon horror movie imagery. In 1989 Brian Warner formed the band The Spooky Kids and transformed himself into Marilyn Manson. Marilyn Manson and the Spooky Kids drew upon influences from heavy metal and glam rock (the influence of Alice Cooper and The New York Dolls being the most obvious). The group was based upon the idea of the dichotomy of good and evil. Their stage shows were reminiscent of both Alice Cooper and W.A.S.P. And like Alice Cooper and W.A.S.P., Marilyn Manson generated his own share of controversy.

With the exception of these bands and a few others, heavy metal was out of the public eye for the most part for much of the Nineties. It would take a heavy metal legend to revive the form. In 1996 Ozzy Osbourne the first Ozzfest, a touring collection of heavy metal acts, both classic and new. A highlight of the festival has been the occasional reunions of the original members of Black Sabbath. Ozzfest once more brought heavy metal back to the public eye and, as a result, new heavy metal bands arose and old heavy metal bands saw their careers revived.

Indeed, the Nineties would see the rise of yet another heavy metal subgenre--nu metal. Nu metal combined heavy metal with elements of grunge, electronica, and progressive rock. Actually, nu metal wasn't all that new. It can be argued that it originated with the band Tool, who formed in 1990. The band's sound is an odd mix of King Crimson, Rush, and Jane's Addiction. The band maintained their popularity for the entirety of the Nineties and has even remained somewhat popular to this day. Other nu metal bands include Korn and Deftones. I have to question whether other nu metal bands can be called metal at all. Limp Bizkit (possibly the worst name for a band in the history of music), Papa Roach, Godsmack, and P.O.D. smack (no pun intended) too much of rap to me to be considered metal.

Heavy metal has yet to reattain the popularity it had in the Eighties, but it is at least more visible now. In fact, just as Monster Magnet returned to classic metal in the Nineties, so too does Avenged Sevenfold in the Naughts. The band's obvious inspiration are such classic groups as Iron Maiden and GNR.

I don't know if heavy metal will ever again be as popular as it once was, but, for better or worse, I know I will always listen to it. When I was less than a decade old I was exposed to the music of Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath, and Led Zeppelin. Among the first albums I bought were those by Judas Priest and AC/DC. In the Eighties I listened to Iron Maiden and Queensryche. By the Nineties I was listening to White Zombie and Monster Magnet. I still own all of my W.A.S.P. albums.

Quite naturally, I do have a few opinions about heavy metal. One is that it seems to me that what constitutes heavy metal is largely subjective. In the early Seventies, Grand Funk Railroad was considered heavy metal. There are very few headbangers today who consider them metal. In the early Eighties there were some who counted Van Halen as a heavy metal band. I doubt that there are too many who still do today. In the Nineties Soundgarden was considered grunge, even though they sounded more like Black Sabbath than Nirvana. One man's heavy metal is another man's hard rock. Or in the case of some of the so called nu metal bands, rap (or something that rhymes with rap...).

I also have to admit that it is sometimes hard to take heavy metal seriously. Sad as it may seem, This is Spinal Tap is funny because so many of the cliches it sends up are true. Many of the metal bands of the Eighties could barely play their instruments (Venom, anyone?). Many of the metal bands of the Eighties wrote songs that make "Sex Farm" by Spinal Tap look like "A Day in the Life" by The Beatles (remember "Cherry Pie" by Warrant...). Sexism was rampant in Eighties metal...Spinal Tap's proposed album cover for Smell the Glove was nothing unusual for an Eighties metal band. And don't get me started about Eighties metal fashion. Black leather is cool, but there is a point where one can wear too much leather (I shudder to think what I looked like back then...).

While I must admit that I know all too well the foibles and follies of heavy metal throughout the history, it is still a form of music I love dearly. Short of the British Invasion bands and power pop (The Beatles and Cheap Trick are my favourite bands of all time), it is my favourite subgenre of rock music. And I must admit, I would like nothing more than for Monster Magnet to replace Fifty Cent in the IPods of today's youth. One can always hope...

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