With all due respect to William S. Burroughs, Steppenwolf and the late Lester Bangs, it's time that a phrase they slipped into the rock & roll lexicon was retired. Heavy metal, a scientific term that Burroughs borrowed for his novel Nova Express, was later picked up by Steppenwolf in "Born to Be Wild." Bangs then adopted it to describe the loud blues-based rock & roll being spewed out by the likes of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.
Before long, heavy metal connoted not only a sound but also the trappings that sometimes accompanied it: the leather and stringy hair, the goofy demonic imagery. As a result, the musical boundaries of the genre have sprawled so far that today the phrase heavy metal is ridiculously vague. It serves only to fuel the misperceptions of rock & roll bigots who still assume that five bands as different as Ratt, Extreme, Anthrax, Danzig and Mother Love Bone all sound alike.
Of these bands, Ratt probably comes closest to the heavy-metal stereotype. On Detonator, the band gets back to the brand of Sunset Strip glam rock that marked its 1984 debut, Out of the Cellar. The lyrics are simplistic just what the doctor ordered if you're fifteen and partying in your high-school parking lot. Detonator isn't without its explosive moments; the members of Ratt are sticking to something they've always done extremely well. But if they'd paid closer attention to the icon that cleared the path they're walking Van Halen they'd know that it pays to move on when things get comfortable.
Pornograffitti reveals that the members of Extreme were also weaned on Van Halen; the mystery is what else they grew up on. "More Than Words," a placid duet, suggests the Beatles. But Gershwin surfaces on "When I First Kissed You," and a great deal of Pornograffitti recalls the sound of Seventies funk & roll. Guided rather than consumed by its influences, Extreme is helping to drag hard rock, kicking and screaming, into the Nineties.
When it comes to kicking and screaming, nobody does it better than Anthrax: Persistence of Time is a foray into the dreary, gray bowels of urban hell. The members of Anthrax and their speed-metal brethren have taken the plodding belligerence of early Sabbath, reset the metronome to triple time and imbued their sound with the sort of unmitigated anger that was first mined by bands like the Stooges and the Sex Pistols. The only difference is that Anthrax's mouthpiece, Joey Belladonna, puts his time on the soapbox to constructive use, railing against every societal ill known to city-bred man. It ain't the most uplifting thing to listen to, but it's real.
Bizarre realism is one of Glenn Danzig's tricks in trade how else could he write such netherworldly lyrics and still be taken seriously? On Danzig II Lucifuge, the members of Danzig carry on in the tradition that made their debut so heady. Here again, Sabbath often rings in as an influence but there's no Sabbath in the Fifties rock & roll of "Blood and Tears" or the guitar-fueled cabaret of "Killer Wolf." And Glenn Danzig would never stoop to some of the dippy demonic wordplays Sabbath got away with.
Only one of these bands Seattle's Mother Love Bone deals in the sort of rumbling mysticism that can be traced back to Zeppelin. Apple, Mother Love Bone's debut album, succeeds where countless other hard-rock albums have failed, capturing the essence of what made Zep immortal dynamics, kids! and giving it a unique Nineties spin. "Stardog Champion" has the chugging, bloozy appeal of "When the Levee Breaks"; numbers like "Crown of Thorns" echo with the sadness that marked "The Rain Song"; the guitar on psychedelic raveups like "This Is Shan-grila" is loose, unruly and blissfully imperfect. Apple is nothing short of a masterpiece. It is also, unfortunately, the last Mother Love Bone album. Andrew Wood, the group's vocalist, died of a heroin overdose on March 19th.
These bands all have been categorized as heavy metal, but the only thing they have in common is the music they grew up on. What makes them individual is how they interpret those influences. The song most certainly has not remained the same. And neither, perhaps, should the name if it's as misleading as heavy metal. (RS 588)
(Posted: Oct 4, 1990)
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