By Wil Forbis
Note: This piece is a companion to my much longer essay "Confessions of a Metalholic."
I was only dimly aware of Tesla during the heyday of 80s hair metal, primarily through their presence on MTV. Their songs seemed well-crafted and they came across as down to earth guys --- which I admired --- but I was never inspired to actually purchase any oftheir albums. As I worked my way through the 90s I found myself duping some of their cassettes or picking them up in the $.99 bin. Their material wasn't bad and has held up a lot better than similar artists of the same period, like Cinderella or Britney Fox. Tesla's musical ability was a bit hit or miss --- their vocalist was no stranger to sour notes and the two guitarists, while technically proficient, never really commanded their instruments with authority. (To my ear, and you can really hear what a great guitarist digs into a note. I never heard this in Tesla's playing.) But Tesla wrote a number of good songs and showed a laudable willingness to experiment with form and structure. While I've never been entirely clear what many of the songs are actually about, some of them have some fairly memorable lyrics.
Whitesnake was a band I absolutely loathed during the late 80s. To me they were the epitome of corporate metal and I was particularly turned off when I read about the underhanded way that singer David Coverdale had fired John Sykes, the guitarist who played most of the parts on their comeback 1987 album "Whitesnake." (I've since forgotten the details of the firing that so offended me.) Additionally, I never found any of their songs very catchy, even their big hit of the day, "Here I Go Again."
Whitesnake was a band that actually been around for over a decade --- Coverdale had fronted a completely different collection of musicians during the late 70s under the same name. Years after the "Whitesnake" album, I picked up some of the band's early work and quite enjoyed it. It was really more blues rock than metal, driven as much by electric organ as guitar and it featured consistent if not spectacular songwriting.
Then, a couple years ago, I was at a karaoke bar when someone covered "Here I Go Again" and I had to admit that the song had aged well -- it's really got a great chorus.
On top of all that, I met David Coverdale at the Southwest terminal of the Los Angeles airport a year ago and he was a very cordial fellow.
Priest is a band that continues to fascinate me to this day. When I first got into heavy metal I picked up their then current albums "Defenders of the Faith" and "Turbo." Even my naïve ears could sense that these albums skewed commercial, but nonetheless I dug them and spent a lot of time learning the guitar parts from "Defenders of the Faith."
The band then pursued a hard-core thrash sound and while I admired the technical facility of the guitar playing I couldn't maintain much interest in the music. So I started exploring the earlier period of the catalog, greatly enjoying their late 70s and early 80s classic rock phase. Priest is one of those bands that I never seem to tire of --- I can always pick up one of their great albums and appreciate it.
And of course, the career of Judas Priest has been dogged with interesting side stories. In the 80s, two teenagers attempted suicide and then claimed they had been instructed to do so by backwards voices encoded in a Judas Priest record. (The band was sued and successfully defended themselves in court.) In the 90s, Priest front man and singer Rob Halford announced his homosexuality with little response from the public. They've earned their place as the definitive heavy metal act and they're a groovy bunch of cats.
Like Tesla, Kix was one of those bands I was aware of during the 80s but not a particular fan of. They seemed largely indistinguishable from the gamut of gutter rat hard rock bands that were signed by the hundreds after the success of Guns N' Roses' "Appetite for Destruction." Kix launched their attack on MTV with an up-tempo rocker, "Cold Blood" followed by a piano driven anti-suicide ballad "Don't Close Your Eyes." They weren't bad songs, but not enough for me to pick up the album. It wasn't until years later I discovered the band had been around for close to a decade and actually started out playing a poppy, almost new-wave form of hard rock. I picked up a couple of their early albums and was pleasantly surprised. It was fun, no-frills hard rock without any of the cultural baggage that hangs off hair metal.
The band Great White utterly immolated their reputation in the nightclub fire that killed a hundred of their fans. Obviously this had a horrible human cost but the stain it left on their musical catalog is tragic as well. "Save Your Love" was quite possibly the best metal ballad of the 80s. And for a genre so often criticized for its lack of subtlety, their song "Rock Me" builds its dynamics in a slow sexual fashion, leaving the listener guessing at the exact moment of release. Even their cover of Ian Hunter's "Once Bitten, Twice Shy" had an admirable bluesy restraint.
Zodiac Mindwarp and the Love Reaction
British group Zodiac Mindwarp and the Love Reaction started out as a parody metal band but it was something of a doomed effort. Regular heavy metal is so often a parody of itself that there's little meat left for a satirists to bite into. However, the band did succeed as a great metal band. Their songs rocked, they created memorable riffs and their guitar player really stood out. Because of the way they simultaneously took seriously and satirized metal they were a precursor to more recent act, The Darkness.
Heavy metal was not welcome territory for female artists. That said, female fronted band Saraya did some impressive work including one of my favorite metal songs "Love Has Taken Its Toll" off their self-titled 1989 album. The song was hit, and the rest of the album was not mere filler --- it included a number of well-crafted songs. Despite this, Saraya weren't able to follow up their initial success and were killed off by the same wave of grunge that drowned so many metal acts.
Slash's Snakepit/Gilby Clark
It's telling that the best Guns N' Roses albums of the 90s were not released by the band, but by individual members. In 1994, while waiting on the imperious Axl Rose to define the direction of Guns N' Roses, lead guitarist Slash assembled a side project featuring members of Guns N' Roses and other musicians filtering through the Los Angeles music scene (including Eric Dover of phenomenal psychedelic pop group Jellyfish.) The band recorded an album "It's Five O'clock Somewhere" that capably captured Slash's mastery of blues laden metal. The album wasn't quite on par with "Appetite for Destruction" (no doubt the lack of Rose's histrionics smoothed out the music's potential dramatic arc) but it featured strong songwriting and further cemented Slash's reputation as a guitar god more indebted to Hendrix and Clapton than the classical musicians that served as inspiration for so many of metal's finest.
In 2000, Slash's Snakepit released a second album. Of the original band lineup, only Slash remained. The album was less strong, but still featured some standout material including the morbid first-person account of a serial killer, somewhat unimaginatively titled"Serial Killer," and the horn laden New Orleans stomp "Ain't Life Grand."
In 1991, L.A. Guitarist Gilby Clark replaced original member of Guns N' Roses, Izzy Stradlin on rhythm guitar. Clark was an accomplished lead player and prolific writer, and in 1994 released the album "Pawnshop Guitars." In a sense, the album probably has more rights to be considered a Guns N' Roses album than 2008's "Chinese Democracy" since it featured numerous members of the classic G-N'-R lineup. It's also a terrific album --- up there in my top five albums of the 90s.
A female fronted group from Australia, Baby Animals really have no business being on this list. At best, they were hard rock, not heavy metal, and didn't have any real success until the early 90s. But their self-titled debut album really is a underrated gem. All of the songs are polished and catchy and it's no surprise that producer Mike Chapman --- hitmaker for bands such as Blondie and The Knack --- had a credit on the album. Augmenting the great songs was solid, textural guitar playing and a rhythm section that knew the meaning of the word "groove." Lead singer, Suze DeMarchi, married Nuno Bettencourt from Extreme.