From the mid-80′s on, solo artists like Yngwie Malmsteen and Joe Satriani cultivated a market for flashy guitar instrumentals. As I mentioned earlier, pop metal bands were also a breeding ground for guitar heroes. Two institutions sprang up to capitalize on these trends: One a school for would-be shredders, the other a showcase for exceptional talent.
The school was GIT (Guitar Institute of Technology), founded in 1977 in Hollywood. As the 1980′s brought a new level of technicality to modern guitar, several flocked to the institute to learn how to play like their idols. After the opening of expansion programs for bass (BIT) and percussion (PIT), the school was rechristened the Musician’s Institute. Some graduates of GIT transitioned directly into recording careers; and one label, Shrapnel Records, was there to catch their brightest.
Mike Varney launched Shrapnel in 1980 with the intent of promoting “guitarists of extraordinary ability.” Given the impressive list of alumni, I would say his objective has been realized. Former Shrapnel artists include Jason Becker, Marty Friedman, Greg Howe, Yngwie Malmsteen, Vinnie Moore, Richie Kotzen, and a powerful speed/pop outfit called Racer X, featuring the twin leads of GIT alumnus-turned-instructor Paul Gilbert and one of Gilbert’s students, Bruce Bouillet.
Toward the end of the 80′s, Gilbert entered the pop arena by forming Mr. Big with bassist Billy Sheehan, vocalist Eric Martin, and drummer Pat Torpey. Mr. Big were one of a few groups that brought a high level of musicianship to the otherwise dumbed-down pop metal genre. This scene suffered major blows with the onset of grunge in the 90′s, which had the effect of purging the public’s interest in finely crafted rhythm section work.
One of the things I appreciate most about these guys is their dedication to sharing their expertise. Search YouTube for “Paul Gilbert,” “Jason Becker,” and “Vinnie Moore,” and you’ll see as much footage taken from instructional videos and clinics as there is from live performances.
Thrash began when metal musicians adopted some elements of hardcore punk. Once thrash had established itself as a distinct style, several artists emerged whose sound leaned back in a punk direction. Chief of these is the Los Angeles group Suicidal Tendencies, who broke with the single “Institutionalized,” a youth angst anthem if there ever was one, with a vaguely metal verse riff and a chorus that is clearly punk.
It was with their second album, Join the Army, that ST created the fully realized hardcore/thrash crossover sound. One highlight, “War Inside My Head,” is typical: Singer Mike Muir portrays a struggle with insanity — not Metallica’s supernatural or traumatic post-war madness, but some form of internally fueled raging urban burnout — while guitarist Rocky George transforms a mostly punk arrangement with classic thrash motifs.
Lest you think the blending of punk and thrash merged two discrete fan bases together into one loving family, remember that these are also styles whose fans are intensely territorial. In Get Thrashed, Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian recalls the animosity:
“We played a show out here in LA in 1986 at the Olympic Auditorium where it was just, it was chaos. You had 3,000 people there…and they all hated each other. It had nothing to do with moshing or slam-dancing. It was fights; it was packs of gangs chasing other people.”
This didn’t stop Ian from indulging his fascination with hardcore by launching S.O.D. (“Stormtroopers of Death”), a crossover group with abrasively satirical lyrics that failed to speak to those in the punk crowd who didn’t get the joke.
Acronyms seemed a popular naming convention; other groups in the movement include D.R.I. (“Dirty Rotten Imbeciles”), M.O.D. (“Methods of Destruction”) and C.O.C. (“Corrosion of Conformity”). Another trend in crossover is extremely short song forms. Some tracks by M.O.D. clock in at under 20 seconds — a device mirrored in grindcore, another offshoot of hardcore that developed in the United Kingdom.
Napalm Death were the pioneers of grindcore. They responded to metal and punk’s fascination with fast tempos by taking speed to its ultimate extreme. The blastbeat has since become a staple of hardcore and metal drumming. Their debut album, Scum, has a total running time of 33:04 despite containing 28 tracks.
From Scum, the song “You Suffer” was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s shortest song, clocking in at 1.316 seconds. The full lyrics are, “You suffer, but why?”
At its inception, Metal appealed to a niche audience; but by the early 1980′s, pop metal bands found their way onto the charts, and MTV brought them into our living rooms. Amidst the hair metal mania, several artists continued working hard in the underground, pushing the metal sound into heavier territory. Just up the coast from pop metal’s epicenter in Los Angeles, bands in San Francisco were inventing a more extreme expression of metal that would somehow remain invisible to the general public while selling millions of albums, and filling the world’s concert seats. To the true metalhead, pop metal was merely a diversion; the style known as “thrash” represented metal’s true bloodline.
Thrash is to metal as Hard Bop is to jazz. Its techniques have remained the foundation for all but the most saccharine pop metal. In thrash, guitars are crunchy and syncopated, doubling the bass, and accented by the kick drum. Thrash riffs are less melodic and more visceral — they are meant to be felt as well as heard. Classical scales and harmonies are abandoned in favor of a more chromatic approach, seamlessly incorporating blues, phrygian, and spanish scales. Song forms are lengthy and progressive; half and double-time sections are used to vary the intensity, with the “breakdown” emerging as a staple of the extreme metal songwriting vocabulary. Vocals are more gruff than in pop and power metal, often with partly shouted, “call-and-response” refrains. Lyrical subject matter is grimly realistic, portraying disillusionment, insanity, paranoia, and the horrors of war. When thrash lyricists depart from cynicism, their more fun pieces are celebrations of thrash culture, as in the exemplary, adrenaline-soaked “Toxic Waltz,” by Exodus:
Whereas glam bands seemed to draw their inspiration from American shock rockers like Alice Cooper and KISS, thrashers sought to emulate and expand upon the sounds of the NWOBHM. Metallica were overt fans of Diamond Head, Budgie, and hardcore punkers The Misfits; and Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine claimed to keep a copy of King Diamond’s Melissa with him as he toured. Metallica and Megadeth, along with Slayer and Anthrax (the only group from the east coast) comprised what critics and fans refer to as the “Big Four” of thrash.
Of the Big Four, Metallica is the most obviously prolific. Founded in Los Angeles and quickly relocated to the Bay Area, its members originally included Dave Mustaine, who was ousted just before the release of their debut album. Metallica’s immense success is no accident; of the four, they were far from the most talented, but they knew quite well how to work around their limitations and produce highly engaging songs, making them the ultimate garage band. Their rise was based on one brilliant career decision after another, from the removal of Dave Mustaine to their refusal to produce a video until well after the release of their fourth album, which helped cement their credibility with the anti-establishment element of metal fans, a demographic who also delighted in Metallica’s lyrics decrying censorship, totalitarianism, and war. In my opinion, their greatest moment is “Disposable Heroes,” from Master of Puppets: YouTube Video
Once fired from Metallica, their former chief songwriter and lead guitarist Dave Mustaine wasted no time in forming Megadeth. Mustaine has a knack for surrounding himself with quality musicians, and his arrangements have been described by other metal musicians as “jazz-like.” However fair an assessment that may be, he certainly demonstrates the advantage of being a one-man show: One’s vision can be most easily realized by the best talent one can afford, without personal loyalties getting in the way. From their album, Peace Sells, But Who’s Buying?, the song “Wake Up Dead” was my introduction to Megadeth, and it rocked my brains out: YouTube Video
New York City’s Anthrax were not only geographically removed from the others in the Big Four, but were stylistically quite distant as well. Their instrumental sound was classic thrash, but with more intense double and even quadruple-time beats and breaks, anticipating the “blast beats” so prevalent in today’s metal and metalcore styles. They took a less cynical approach to lyric writing; in their landmark album Among the Living, they focus on topics like teen angst (“Caught in a Mosh”) and comic book heroes (“I Am The Law”), and even lament the tragedy of John Belushi’s premature death (“Efilnikufesin”). Their willingness to cross over into other genres placed them squarely in the midst of a hardcore punk/thrash crossover movement that stirred enmity between punk fans and their long-haired headbanging counterparts. They also dabbled in hip-hop, teaming up with Public Enemy on the single “Bring the Noise,” subsequently enjoying some mainstream success. Even their image was upbeat; Anthrax routinely sported baseball caps and bright shorts, in contrast to Metallica’s black jeans and plain t-shirts. This is gateway metal for the frat crowd: YouTube Video
Slayer bears the distinction of being the best-aged thrash group. Throughout the decades since the 80′s, during which mainstream metal was first marginalized, then recalled with pitiful disdain, Slayer’s unapologetic thrash has retained its appeal. I attribute this in part to their resilience under fire. Their careers have perennially been plagued by controversy, making them thrash’s whipping boys. Their album art and subject matter explore dark concepts like murder, torture, and demonism, fueling accusations of satanism. For a time, their song “Angel of Death” invited (erroneous) allegations that they were Nazi sympathizers. Still they passed through the 80′s paranoia wave unscathed; and their furious, high-speed grinding has made them prototypes of death metal, black metal, and metalcore acts to come. Many of today’s more aggressive metal bands can trace their lineage to Slayer. YouTube Video
The music of the NWOBHM inspired a new generation of artists in the States, and American bands would dominate metal through the 80′s and well beyond. Some artists in San Francisco took the punky rhythms and textures explored by the likes of Motörhead, and beefed up the presentation; we shall explore their work in my next entry. But for now, let’s turn to Los Angeles, where music’s biggest party was getting underway.
LA’s Sunset Strip was the epicenter of so-called “hair metal,” a.k.a. “cock rock” and “glam metal.” For the sake of objectivity, I prefer “pop metal.” It is debatable whether you might even dare to call some of these acts “metal.” For some who played in these clubs hoping to be the next MTV sensation, the music was little more than an excuse to party hard, in every sense of the word.
Although it is easy to criticize pop metal for its superficiality, there arose among its legions a new musical archetype — the guitarist who is too good for his surroundings. So many pop metal acts — Dokken, Extreme, Winger, Van Halen, the David Lee Roth Group — balanced a pandering to the lowest common denominator with highly artful guitar work.
Ratt’s “Round and Round” is one of my favorite pop metal tunes, for not only showcasing Warren DeMartini’s slick leads, but also being a quite well-crafted tune. Here is an ideal pop metal song if there ever was one, appealing to the masses with its catchiness, without sacrificing musicianship.
Thanks to their having balanced pop banality with strong musical craftsmanship, or at least a rough enough image to pass as “metal enough”, some groups maintained respect among the more sincere metalheads. One such group is Quiet Riot, whose Metal Health album became the first metal album to reach #1 on the American Billboard pop album charts. The industry began signing everyone who wore long hair and carried a superstrat, and our airwaves became flooded with pure drivel.
During this era, filmmaker Penelope Spheeris produced an exposé of the Sunset Boulevard scene entitled The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years. In the interviews she compiled, we hear LA veterans and rising stars alike confessing to the most depraved and misogynistic behavior. Seen through Spheeris’s lens, the typical metal musician is a societal leech at his best, a dead-end drunk at his worst. Members of Poison gleefully relate their hedonistic exploits, W.A.S.P.’s Chris Holmes chugs an entire bottle of vodka in front of his mother, and KISS singer Paul Stanley smugly encourages any who would be rock stars to go for broke. But near the end, a scowling, makeup-free Dave Mustaine answers the question, “What do you have to say to kids who want to make it as a rock star?” with a blunt, “Dont.”
Stay tuned to learn what Mustaine and the other half of American metalheads were doing in the 80′s. It was pretty big. In the meantime, watch The Metal Years in its entirety on YouTube while you can.