Archive for April, 2014

When Heavy Metal ruled the world (or at least my corner of it)

Posted in Bent Notes Column with tags , , , , , , , on April 18, 2014 by Todd

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Attics are strange places, chambers set apart for the safekeeping of precious objects and useless heirlooms, where entire realms of time and memory can be hoarded and sealed off from extinction.
I was recently reminded of the time bending quality all attics possess when I came upon a few dozen artifacts from my past that had long ago been discarded in a dark corner of the low-ceilinged room at the top of my parent’s house: a stack of L.P. records from my teenage years, a time when my music of choice, much to my parent’s dismay, was a breakaway form of rock known as Heavy Metal.
I had assumed the albums had been thrown out long ago in one of my parents’ infrequent purges of all their non-essential household items. But there they were, spread neatly across the plywood floor where they’d tumbled over behind the boxes of Christmas ornaments and discarded workout equipment, album after album by bands whose names now sound more like obscure Egyptian deities than musical artists: Saxon, Manowar, King Kobra, Armored Saint, Krokus, Queensryche, Dio, Judas Priest.
During my teenage years in the early-mid 1980s, these names signified more than a particular artist or even musical style, they encapsulated an entire universe of sound and meaning, a secret society of self-ordained misfits who considered themselves in opposition to the social and musical trends of the time, which included pastel colored OP jackets, Izod shirts and bands like Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, and A Flock of Seagulls.
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I suppose I numbered myself among those outcasts who shunned such things, although I more often than not kept my musical tastes to myself. Which wasn’t hard to do in those pre-Internet days, when very few people even knew these ridiculously outfitted and arcanely named bands existed, much less what manner of music they made.
In 1983, the year I truly embraced Metal, the only way to find up to date news of these bands was to seek out magazines such as Hit Parader, Circus, Creem, Faces, and Metal Edge, monthly publications that, at least to me, came to take on the significance of holy scripture, signposts to a world I perceived to be infinitely more interesting than the small, Eastern North Carolina town I woke up in each day.
To my skinny, teenaged self, the Metal bands of the 80s appealed on both a musical and visual level: They simply sounded and looked like nothing else in the musical world of the day. The guitars screamed and whined in intricate harmony, creating a frenzied though often-melodic blare of sound that all but buried the bass and keyboards in the mix. But the true stars of the music were the vocalists, shrieking banshee wailers who pitched their voices to operatic heights, who reached for the all-powerful Scream that was first perfected by Rob Halford of Judas Priest.

Halford was also a trailblazer on the fashion front, the other key component of Heavy Metal style: black leather vests and pants, studded wristbands, bikers caps, chains. Metal bands of the day all traded in some form of The Look, from the Viking loincloth chic of Manowar to the gypsy rags and scarves of more female conscious bands like Def Leppard and Dokken — somehow it all fell under the umbrella of Metal fashion.
While the trappings and packaging of these bands seem utterly ridiculous at this late date, what can’t be denied is the work ethic and commitment of these acts, most of whom spent the vast majority of their working careers on the road, performing night after night for audiences large and small across the globe. In the world of Metal, at that moment in time, to be truly accepted a band had to prove itself on the road. The live act was king, and a group that could not deliver onstage, that could not put on a show both musically and theatrically, was simply written off as inconsequential, no better than the lip synching pop acts that glutted the airwaves.
The most successful of these bands— the Judas Priests and Iron Maidens of the world—have all prospered into the 21st century, selling out stadiums worldwide whenever the mood strikes them to tour, trading on their history and past glories in much the same way the Rolling Stones and other classic rock acts have done for decades.
Unlike those bands, however, the best of the metal acts of the ’80s have shown an unwillingness to rest on their considerable laurels, recording new material and pushing their music into unfamiliar territory with a consistency and verve that makes their pop, country, and new wave contemporaries seem woefully uninspired by comparison.
And then there’s the rest, the second and third tier acts, the one hit wonders and also-rans that never quite broke on MTV or built an underground following large enough to justify their record company’s continued support.
They’re still out there, bands like Metal Church, Kix, and Helix, playing a county fair or civic center near you this summer, joining up with once chart topping Pop Metal acts like Ratt or Europe for package tours in an effort to maximize their finances and stave off the growing rows of empty seats.
Every now and then word will come down through what’s left of the Metal grapevine that one of its ranks has passed away, from AIDS, cancer, or the combined effects of a reckless lifestyle and inadequate or nonexistent health insurance. Even the true gods of Metal are not immune to the ravages of time, as witnessed by the passing in 2010 of Ronnie James Dio, one of the genres greatest vocalists and truest gentleman.

But it’s the forgotten ones that somehow seem the most important to me now, their members frozen on album covers where they peer out, leather-gloved fists clenched and hair tossed back in defiance. Those young men had no idea they weren’t on the very brink of stardom, that everything they’d read about in those same magazines I raced to the local drugstore to buy each month would pass them by in a matter of months, or several years if they were particularly lucky.
As preposterous as they seem now, those bands were made up of true believers, kids not that much older than I was, who all went after something and, at least for one album, found it. And while that’s not enough to convince me to rescue those vinyl relics from the attic above the bedroom where I once sat, earphones clamped to my head, and pondered their every mystery, it’s nice to know they’re still there. Just in case I decide to break out the black leather again.