A conservatory of Ldotter blogs.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

In defense of 80's metal. . .

. . .there was actually some good music made in that odious era of rock music marketing. Somehow, androgyny managed to creep into the business of creating male guitar heroes. Don't ask me what happened. One day, I was listening to Eddie Van Halen bending and tapping his way through another signature solo -- next thing I know, I'm watching C.C. Deville vamp it up in a Poison video. Something went badly wrong, somewhere in the A&R departments of all the major record labels.

I was an Iron Maiden fan in those days. . .and still am. I don't listen to them with the same sense of awe that I once did, but I can still appreciate the merit of their music -- especially as it compares to that of many of their contemporaries. And, you'll get a better account of Alexander the Great's life on their album, Somewhere in Time than you'll get from Oliver Stone's movie.

Some bands with at least a little discernible musical merit were outright victimized by the whole quest for androgyny -- essentially a marketing ploy to sell hard rock music to teenaged girls by presenting a less threatening image than that portrayed by Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and their like in the hard rock/heavy metal genre.

One band that had some musical merit and bad image advice was (dare I say it?) Dokken. If you can set aside the cheese within the image, and the overly polished production on their heyday releases, and just listen to the guitar playing, you'll come away with at least a grudging respect for George Lynch's talent, if you're at all inclined toward that sort of thing.

And, say what you will about 80's metal, it was guitar-centered music that came along just about the time the world was convinced that the guitar would be buried by the synthesizer. It featured impractically vast drum kits when electronic drums threatened to push makers like Sonor, Ludwig, and Pearl out of existence. 80's metal featured brooding bass players in the era that gave birth to the turntable as the instrument of "groove".

As a one-time guitar hero wannabe, I tended to listen to the the kind of music that really fell into disfavor in the early 90's, with the advent of "grunge" -- that is, anything with self-indulgent guitar solos. That's not to take away from the grunge genre, by any means. It produced a lot of talented acts, though I suspect many of them were reformed metal bands following musical trends to success. Alice in Chains and Soundgarden are a couple of notables.

But, the guitar solo was established as the true currency of hard rock by the all-time master, Led Zeppelin, and so, it shouldn't be denigrated as it was throughout the 90's and now, into the 21st Century -- though it is making a comeback. (The drum solo, on the other hand, will probably never grace another mass-market music CD. Which is a shame, if you remember Led Zeppelin's John Bonham on The Song Remains the Same, or have listened to "Bonzo's Montreaux" on the Zeppelin box set.)

The 80's produced a lot of lackluster music, and there's no denying that. Some of the bands that managed to get record deals have me scratching my head to this day. But, before you write off the entire era as nothing more than bombast, hairspray, and mass-market cheese, take time to listen to some of the truly talented musicians who came out of it.

Many of the great guitarists of the time are still emulated today by budding guitar heroes. Yngwie Malmsteen (pronounced "Ing-vay Mahlm-steen") is one of them. Granted, he was about as self-indulgent as guitarists get, using every song as a vehicle for a blistering solo. But, the fact of the matter is, the solos are blistering, and they've caused more than one kid with a Fender Stratocaster to reconsider his life's calling. And, to many parents out there, that's a good thing -- unless they just forked over the bucks for the Stratocaster.

In the beginning, Yngwie was a guitarist's guitarist, making albums consisting mostly of instrumental pieces. With his classical training, pretentious air, and complete conviction that he is the greatest man to ever bend the strings on an electric guitar, he gave his songs names like, "Icarus' Dream Suite, Opus IV" and "Trilogy Suite, Opus V". In fact, Yngwie was so convinced of his musical genius, it made it damn near impossible for anyone to work with him on more than one album release. But, he could flat-out play the guitar, and there aren't many who have heard him that will deny that.

Eventually, he gave in to the trend to turn metal into pop, and hooked up with Joe Lynn Turner (formerly of Richie Blackmoore's Rainbow) to make an album of keyboard-laden syrup and synthesizer driven anthems that would have been more suited to action movie soundtracks of the era -- like Iron Eagle, or some other celluloid atrocity. In fact, if you've heard the song "Montage" from the Team America soundtrack, you'll know exactly what I mean.

Another guitar great from the era is the somewhat mysterious Joe Satriani. His influence on the generation of guitarists that came out of the 80's can't be overestimated. His technique and inventiveness rivals that of Eddie Van Halen, and some say even surpasses it. That's no mean feat, given the near-universal esteem in which Eddie is held among guitar players. If I recall correctly, Satriani actually trained many of the heroes of the era, including Steve Vai, who was originally discovered by Frank Zappa.

Steve Vai eventually went on to play for David Lee Roth after he split from Van Halen to start his own solo career -- of which I was a big fan, at first. Then, it became apparent to me that David Lee Roth without Van Halen didn't do the job any better than Van Halen without David Lee Roth. Apparently, I wasn't the only one to come to that conclusion. After a couple of huge-selling album at the start of solo act, he faded into oblivion, and at one point, even became a Vegas lounge act. But, if you want to hear some great guitar playing, listening to Steve Vai on Roth's first two solo releases will do the job nicely.

If you like a more "progressive" style of old school metal, Queensr├┐che is tough to beat. Sure, it's overly produced and a little pretentious at times, but that's what you get when you buy anything with the "progressive" label. Singer Geoff Tate sings in a very high-pitched, but powerful voice with a lot of vibrato which lends to all their earlier releases' "rock opera" feel. Their album, "Operation: Mindcrime" is an all-time classic, and a must-have for anyone with a serious hard rock music collection.

W.A.S.P is another band from the era that should have had more success, though their lack of huge sales numbers is understandable. They never really bought into the whole glamor schtick that took over hard rock at the time. Instead, they sought to project the most perverse, offensive image in the music business -- throwing bloody raw meat out into the audience in their earliest gigs. Frontman/bassist Blackie Lawless, however, was a talented songwriter and musician, behind the flaming codpiece and all that macabre stage makeup. Headless Children is considered a hard rock classic by fans, and even some music critics grudgingly admit it's a great piece of work. The shame is that W.A.S.P was a good enough band to stand on its own, and shouldn't have had to resort to grotesque theatrics, and controversy for the sake of controversy itself, in order to get noticed among the throng of bleached blond pretty boys that came out of southern California at the time. But, whatever had been the case, I suspect that Blackie Lawless would have obliterated the boundaries of taste. He was the Marilyn Manson of his era -- perhaps before his time.

Those are just a few of the acts I listened to as an angst-filled teenager -- and ones that I listen to from time to time, even to this day, in my mid-30's. Sure, a lot of the music back then was pedestrian. And, much of it was purely juvenile. But, if you look a little deeper than the "hitmakers" of the time, you'll find some stuff with musical relevancy. Kurt Loder might disagree with me on the matter, but that's OK. I pay about as much attention to Loder's musical expertise as Michael Moore pays to the serving suggestion labels on Cool whip canisters.

There is more to 80's metal than Poison and Whitesnake, despite what the Loders of the world say.

Now that I've gotten that off my chest, I hope I haven't bored the reader too much. If so, just think of this blog entry as my self-indulgent guitar solo. I'll be back to more substantial matters, later in the day.
 

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