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Neurotic Text: Crossover: punk and heavy metal, 1980-1987

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Crossover: punk and heavy metal, 1980-1987

I wrote this awhile back and just recently re-edited it, so if you've seen it before, just ignore it. Anyways, it's a history of the influence of heavy metal on punk, specifically between 1980-1987, and it's a good read if you care about such things and a terrible bore if you don't. Consider that your warning!

Metal sucks. Loud, tedious and long-haired, metal was the sonic and cultural refutation of rock’n’roll’s promise, anticipating punk’s demand to kill your parents but aiming that v-axe holocaust in entirely the wrong direction. Rock’n’roll was, and is, a music predicated on passion over precision; simple structures, wild performance and raw soul residing in spontaneity and unbridled aggression. Within fifteen years, however, proto-metal amputated the fluid roll and left only the frigid Rock. The resulting form was neutered by an obsession with technicality and production, rendered a soulless, sexless genre that placed heaviness before energy and instrumental proficiency before inspirational abandon. The abominations of the ‘70's-- latter-day Deep Purple, Van Halen, Bad Company et al-- led directly to today’s Korns and Cannibal Corpses, and are worth about as much of the true music fan’s attention.
Why, then, is Joe Hardcore bothering to applaud records that signal this regressive influence’s first formal incursions into punk rock? I’ll gladly honour the slim tradition of metal acts that have, through excessive dabbling in such tendencies as primitivity (HELLHAMMER, early SABBATH), speed (KREATOR, SLAYER circa ‘86) and sheer bludgeoning dumbfuck savagery (early BATHORY, VENOM) managed to redeem their efforts in a rock’n’roll context; it’s only fair to concede the practice of some primo hardcore/punk outfits to enhance the effectiveness of their attack with tightly controlled doses of metal. The thirteen releases here were important in the cross-pollination that occurred in the ‘80's, a process that began with the decade in the form of shared influences and culminated in whole new genres circa 1986. I’ve chosen to select records based on their degree of influence rather than their relative, subjectively-judged quality, and I’ve had to ignore a number of records that might have anticipated these trends but never really connected enough to be seen as more than isolated flashes of prescient inspiration (STAINS LP on SST, CHINA WHITE 12"), flukes or ultimately irrelevant footnotes (HELLHAMMER, BATHORY etc).

Punk rock and heavy metal: shared origins

Before I get into the meat of this piece, I think it’s important to establish a few points that have long been overlooked by fans and tastemakers in both camps. First of all, metal and punk are not, by nature, polar opposites. Many partisan observers on either side of the fence have promulgated this view since at least the late ‘70's, myself included, and each form has indeed progressed, both musically and ideologically, in largely different directions. Metal has tended to be both the more conservative and escapist genre, presenting its notion of intelligence through virtuoso performance (the work ethic in action!) and grandiose presentation while appealing to a socially conservative, often explicitly right-wing demographic. Metal values material success and upholds an anti-social, rebellious ethic that nonetheless remains essentially traditionalist.
Punk, on the other hand, rejects sophistication of playing and composition, its inherent elitism looking down on such effort as indulgence and pretence. Punk has also been much more explicitly political, usually left-wing or liberal; it has also frequently appeared very reactionary in social matters, but this has more often than not been due to its desire to shock and offend the sensibilities of the “politically correct” than to the presence of any true conservatism.As divergent as these (admittedly far from clearly defined) paths have become, the conscientious student of rock’n’roll history will note that the forms sprung very much from similar origins. Throughout the late ‘60's and well into the ‘70's, seminal outfits like the STOOGES, MC5, ALICE COOPER, BLUE OYSTER CULT and the DICTATORS were playing a basic hard rock that retained, to varying degrees, elements of each incipient genre. This music was championed by writers like Lester Bangs and Richard Meltzer as the truest rock’n’roll of the day, and it was firmly rooted in a pretty specific existential milieu, the American teenage experience of mass culture as filtered through the smart/dumb rock’n’roll ideal, borne of junk food and loud guitars, monster movies and fast cars. KISS opened for the NEW YORK DOLLS and everyone was happy.
Of course, the schism was already under way; heavy metal was increasingly being defined by the likes of LED ZEPPELIN and BLACK SABBATH, drawing the music to arena concerts and sword’n’sorcery lyrics, while punk was soon to explode in direct reaction to such excess. By the end of the ‘70's, the forms were about as far apart-- musically, ideologically, culturally-- as possible, and it was in this context that the crossover occurred. Nonetheless, their shared cosmology is significant and should be considered. Crossover proved that punks were largely willing to accept metal when it returned to its own proletarian, no-frills roots but were equally quick to abandon it when it once again adopted the pomposity and bloatedness of its pre-thrash days. To a certain extent, it also showed that some metal bands were willing to exchange occult nonsense and tedious misogyny for more realistic and progressive sentiment, although the extent to which this filtered down to the fans is, to say the least, debatable.
Another point to remember, since I’m writing for a punk audience, is the initial metal reaction to this stuff. If you’re reading this, chances are that, like me, you’ve frequently opined that the crossover’s principal legacy on this side of the fence-- “modern hardcore”, that is-- is in fact not “hardcore” at all, but is in fact merely “moshmetal”, “new school shit” or words to that effect. True enough, indeed. That said, it’s instructive to scan the metal press circa ‘83-’86 and see the absolute disdain expressed for much early thrash metal. The most scathing condemnation that these longhairs can muster is to decry SLAYER, KREATOR, VENOM et al (but rarely METALLICA, for what it’s worth) as disposable, unlistenable “punk” or “hardcore shit”. Something to keep in mind. Now, onto the records...

MOTORHEAD “Ace of spades” LP (Bronze, 1980)
From day one, perhaps no band has been so influential to punk’s harder side, and so instrumental in the global shift to hardcore, than England’s MOTORHEAD. Originally called BASTARD, they were formed by bassist/vocalist Lemmy Kilmeister upon his unceremonious sacking from spacerock freaks HAWKWIND, and quickly established a reputation as the fastest, roughest band around. Even the relatively tame early recordings reveal a truly raunchy outfit with a murky film of gunk covering their uniquely abrasive, bass-driven blitz.
Combined with their long hair and bluesy songs, the scurrilous themes of numbers like “Vibrator” and amphetamine anthem “Motorhead” seemed to reveal a distinct heavy metal/biker aesthetic at work. With the NWOBHM still a few years away, heavy metal was still largely defined by keyboard-wielding sub-prog hacks and tepid boogie merchants; clearly far too aggressive for such company, MOTORHEAD soon found themselves necessarily allied with the punk rock scene that had fortuitously-- though hardly coincidentally-- exploded just as MOTORHEAD appeared. A number of the era’s less pretentious, more down-to-earth hard rock outfits had found themselves marketed as punk (AC/DC) or professed a certain respect for this new wave of guitar-heavy garage bands (THIN LIZZY), but none were embraced quite so readily as MOTORHEAD. From 1977 on, they released records on punk-friendly labels (Chiswick), gigged with punk bands and even collaborated with punk musicians (Lemmy played bass in an early DAMNED splinter group as the DOMED and recorded songs sharing vocals with SKREWDRIVER’s Ian Stuart; for obvious reasons, the latter sessions have never seen legitimate release). Perhaps no single group is so ubiquitously represented in t-shirts and buttons worn by punks, with everyone from the RAMONES and the ADVERTS through COCKNEY REJECTS and UK SUBS to ANTI-CIMEX and WRETCHED sporting the timeless warpig emblem.
While the band’s sheer velocity was no doubt inspirational to many, it was Lemmy’s hammering bass that really pushed the music forward. Bands like STIFF LITTLE FINGERS and LEATHER NUN brought a whole new burliness to classical punk rock when they added such weight to their own bass sound on killer ‘70's 45s, but it was on MOTORHEAD’s own fourth and most infamous LP, 1980's “Ace of spades”, that the signature elements of gravel vocals, punishing bass and relentless tempo really came together to produce a punk rock LP of unmatched power. There are twelve songs on the LP, and not a hint of the slower or more melodic tracks that peppered earlier efforts; instead, we are treated to one absolutely ferocious rocker after another. Despite its crucial role in the evolution of such definitive bands as BATTALION OF SAINTS, POISON IDEA and DISCHARGE, this is not the pure proto-hardcore punk of such contemporaries as the EXPLOITED or the oi bands, however-- the songs swing in a manner that betrays distant but strong blues roots, the same influences that powered LED ZEPPELIN and DEEP PURPLE accelerated and amplified far past the imaginations of those dinosaurs. The swagger of the ace rhythm section and the excellent lead guitar work convey a sense of genuine musicality and hedonism that was at odds with the hard-nosed but lumpen plod of their compatriots. This is music that is supremely aware of its place in the narrative of great rock’n’roll, music that settles respectfully into its historical berth even as it executes its rule-breaking imperative in breath-taking fashion.

VENOM “Welcome to hell” LP (Neat, 1981)
VENOM don’t really belong in this discussion. Nonetheless, the band and all the inept Satan metal nonsense (beloved of so many mockingly ironic punk rockers) that they inspired in the first half of the ‘80's would be conspicuous enough by their exclusion that it makes more sense to head off the inevitable queries now and explain why I think that to be the case.
Shamelessly ripping off MOTORHEAD, playing faster than any metal band before them and stubbornly refusing to allow their lack of talent, intelligence or any socially redeeming qualities whatsoever to slow them would arguably point to a certain “punky” spirit, and punks were undeniably drawn to the band’s inane racket, but incompetence alone doth not punk rock make. Essentially, this is the PLASMATICS had that band not been in on their own joke. Numerous noisy proto-thrash/trash metal bands were to follow in VENOM’s wake; while some were hilariously bad (ie early SODOM or HELLHAMMER, who self-destructed in embarrassment upon release of their “Apocalyptic raids” 12"), others were actually quite effective in their own way. Montreal’s VOIVOD, for example, released a truly savage LP in 1984; while stock DISCHARGE and GBH t-shirts betray punk influences, their ultra-raw, frenzied thrashing recalls the self-titled DIE KREUZEN LP, VOID or CHEETAH CHROME MOTHERFUCKERS more than the traditional metal-tinged UK outfits favoured by sussed hairfarmers of the day. None of these bands really seem to have significantly influenced contemporary hardcore outfits, however, who were quite capable of making their own inane rackets (by the time most metalheads heard VENOM, punks were already forming bands like CONFUSE, DISORDER and STARK RAVING MAD, after all!), nor did many resonate with any serious metal demographic beyond the underground tape-trading clique. Indeed, neither the traditional metal nor hardcore crowds were to be truly convinced until METALLICA and a couple of like-minded outfits managed to fuse the energy and aggression of punk rock to music played with the proficiency and restraint of classical metal, a combination that was not to reach mainstream ears until 1986. In the meantime, these bands either packed it in ignominiously (a million one-demo wonders) or went on to become serious metal bands (CELTIC FROST, SODOM, VOIVOD), and the terribly amusing and occasionally quite enjoyable din they created remains a historically interesting dead end.

DISCHARGE “Hear nothing, see nothing, say nothing” LP (Clay, 1982)
Perhaps the greatest hardcore band in history, the mighty DISCHARGE formed in 1978, a product of the direct aftermath of British punk’s first wave, in Stoke-on-Trent. They apparently started out playing routine Britpunk in the DAMNED/PISTOLS tradition and developed a strong local following through opening spots with bands like SIOUXSIE AND THE BANSHEES, but the 1980 arrival of new frontman Cal Morris saw them radically upping the “noise not music” ante with a cacophonous mess of pure violence documented on that year’s essential and seminal self-titled EP. This extremely abrasive sound spread rapidly, heralding the arrival of a new form as it simultaneously blew the minds (and eardrums) of some and sent others scurrying back to their GENERATION X records in disgust. A string of brilliant EPs followed, each selling in sufficient quantity to dent the national indie charts and finding aesthetic culmination in the bone-shattering ugliness of 1981's “Why?” 12", but despite somewhat improved production and song-writing (especially evident on the “Never again” EP that followed the 12"), and the borrowing of MOTORHEAD’s jackhammer bass sound to great effect, DISCHARGE were still disparaged as tuneless (yes), mindless (not quite...) disposable noise-- “gluebag music”-- by their legions of detractors. At a time when British punk was dominated by tame new wave from washed-up ‘77 hacks and the banal, plodding tedium of the oi outfits, DISCHARGE’s assaultive primitivity was still simply too much for many to take seriously. “Hear nothing...” changed that forever.
Released on Clay in May of 1982, DISCHARGE’s first LP took all of the rage of their earlier records and jacked it up to a whole new degree of intensity. Gone were the frantic tribal drumming and fuzzed-out, chaotic guitars, replaced by a tight, measured pace and razor-sharp, multi-tracked guitars, wild leads shooting out from the relentless “wall of sound” juggernaut engineered by producer Mike Stone. While every bit as ferocious and unforgiving as the rawer early records, “Hear nothing...” possessed a controlled fury that could not be so easily dismissed as previous efforts. The LP was a monster, and while certainly not “metal”, per se, the new-found professionalism and undeniable sheer force present here would not to go unnoticed outside the hardcore scene, a significant portion of which was to dedicate itself entirely to slavish recreation of this record, a trend that continues unabated today. “Hear nothing...” was instrumental in bringing the potential of the previously-disdained genre to the attention of hair farmers, and revered by the first wave of true thrash metal bands that would appear over the next couple of years, breaking new ground by infusing their metal with the speed and energy found here. Big names such as METALLICA and the dire ANTHRAX eventually covered songs from the album on their own records, but these high-gloss affairs aren’t a patch on the originals. This is hardcore at its best, its influence undiminished twenty years later-- even given the truly pitiful full-blown metal records later released by a band seemingly hellbent on pissing all over its own legacy-- and its power still rarely matched.

METALLICA “Kill ‘em all” LP (Mega Force, 1983)
The eventual adoption of metallic elements by punk bands was inevitable. As punks learned to play their instruments or started dreaming of earning a living from the music that sucked up so much of their time and money, it was only natural that they would seek to make their efforts more complex or potentially more lucrative. If you don’t want to soften up or go totally experimental, making one’s peace with some form of metal seems unavoidable-- hence the emergence of slight metallic/hard rock tinges in numerous bands from the late ‘70's on. From the DEAD BOYS, DOA and LEWD to BLACK FLAG, BAD BRAINS and COCKNEY REJECTS, the ghost of hard rock past infiltrated punk rock long before anyone spoke of a crossover in progress; the influences were simply too singular and subtle to take on the appearance of an over-arching trend. Punks accepted such development as natural and the overwhelming majority of metalheads, completely dismissive of punk rock’s simplicity and roughness, simply didn’t notice.
Similarly, heavy metal was busy undergoing its own transformation in the late ‘70's and early ‘80's. A new wave of lean, mean British purists were taking the heavy metal scene by storm, similar to a European power metal scene that was producing such like-minded outfits as ACCEPT. Nevertheless, tough-sounding as these new bands might have been relative to their spandex-clad precursors, they enjoyed little currency among the punks, their music still too slow and polished. METALLICA were the band that changed everything.
As metal-obsessed, record-collecting teenagers living in California, Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield were hooked on overseas heaviness-- JUDAS PRIEST, BUDGIE, NWOBHM and raucous German acts like ACCEPT and the SCORPIONS. Unlike their friends, however, they had gone on to discover the more extreme sounds of punk rock, and they didn’t hesitate to incorporate the hitherto unknown speed and aggression of such outfits when they formed METALLICA circa 1981 . Of course, their favourite punk band was the MISFITS, who didn’t really speed it up or release a vaguely metallic record of their own until some time later (1983's “Earth AD” LP), by which time METALLICA’s debut was already being released. The group’s early demos electrified the underground metal tape-trading network, hinting at a band that played faster and heavier than MOTORHEAD without degenerating into the one-dimensional joke band ridiculousness of VENOM.
Mega Force released the band’s debut, subtly entitled “Kill ‘em all”, in 1983 and the band shot to the forefront of the new thrash metal scene, easily outshining debut releases the same year from SLAYER and MERCYFUL FATE. As impressive as the LP was, their 1984 sophomore effort, “Ride the lightning”, met even greater acclaim; despite the acoustic intro and melodic leads, the debt owed to such hardcore punk outfits as DISCHARGE and GBH was obvious.
1984-85 saw the release of vinyl by ANTHRAX, EXODUS, CELTIC FROST, MEGADETH, VOIVOD, DESTRUCTION, BATHORY, KREATOR, SLAUGHTER, OVERKILL and ARTILLERY, to name just a few of the more significant acts. Thrash metal was at its peak and METALLICA were the biggest band of them all, retaining underground cred while actually managing to penetrate the mainstream to an extent that would have been unthinkable a few years before. How this affected the mainstream does not directly concern us here; its influence on hardcore, however, was to prove definitive, and by 1985-- the year after “Ride the lightning” appeared-- hardcore bands around the world were falling all over themselves to imitate the raw high-speed metal that METALLICA had perfected over the course of two albums. While some thrash bands continued to play music that was simply too commercial and contrived for most punks to handle, others were simply churning out more of the tuneless noise that hardcore bands had already mastered; as such, their influence would remain limited. METALLICA’s genius was in striking a balance between their rawer, faster impulses and the desire to create memorable, well-crafted songs. For many bands and fans unwilling to give up the speed and energy of early hardcore, but eager to hear something new after years of triple-speed punk thrash, the combination was to prove irresistible.

SUICIDAL TENDENCIES s/t LP (Frontier, 1983)
SUICIDAL TENDENCIES’ debut LP is a tough one to peg. It sold in huge quantities, spawned a legitimate MTV hit song and was the first hardcore that a great many people were exposed to. Nonetheless, the measure of its enduring impact is debatable. It is inarguable that the band were, even before this LP, crucial in fomenting a regional phenomenon. They reigned over the Venice Beach scene that produced such like-minded crossover outfits as BEOWULF, NO MERCY and EXCEL (who also went on to record for Caroline with some success later in the decade). Likewise, selling a reported quarter million copies of a record like “Suicidal Tendencies”, on an indie label, would be no mean feat today, let alone in the pre-METALLICA era. Nonetheless, for whatever reason, few bands outside Southern California actually reflected the band’s sound-- certainly not near so many as adopted their gang’s signature style of bandanas, long-sleeve shirts and hats with flipped-up brims. Ultimately, SUICIDAL TENDENCIES were a novelty band for the majority of record buyers that made the LP such a hit. Although they were to pursue a much more authentically metal/crossover direction on later records (records, incidentally, that rival DRI’s later efforts in shameless pandering to the lucrative hair farmer and skatebrat demographics, with attendant loss of any real edge or relevance), the debut actually consists of catchy, well-played hardcore that takes most of its metallic cred from the presence of a particularly good guitarist in the form of Grant Estes. Unafraid to show off his decidedly unpunk chops at a time when such instrumental indulgence was a liability for any self-respecting ‘core unit, Estes provided the perfect musical backdrop for frontman Mike Muir’s pseudo-offensive ranting. With their hit “Institutionalized” fittingly included on the “Repo Man” soundtrack alongside other cartoon-punk outfits like FEAR, SUICIDAL’s seemingly mock-psychotic schtick was possessed of enough musical heft (courtesy of Estes and a quality production job) to pass mainstream muster, and hardcore finally entered the living rooms of suburban America via a wacky MTV video. In 1984, SUICIDAL TENDENCIES were to DOKKEN as the DEAD MILKMEN were to REM, but their new-found fan base was too busy toking up and waiting for the next trend to bother going out and forming their own bands. Too high-profile to be completely ignored here, the long-term influence of “Suicidal Tendencies” was nonetheless minimal, and they remain more hardcore fluke and metal footnote than crucial piece of the puzzle.

GISM “Detestation” 12" (Dogma/City Rocker, 1984)
One of the most truly demented hardcore records ever released, GISM’s massively influential “Detestation” set an enduring precedent for Japanese metalcore and remains a global cult favourite to this day, status due in no small part to its absolutely original method of combining punk and metal influences in equal doses. While the idea of mixing the styles was not entirely new by 1984, the choice of metallic inspiration certainly was. Punks elsewhere were able to dig the new sounds brought by early ANTHRAX, METALLICA and SLAYER precisely because these rough-hewn upstarts presented a marked contrast to the decidedly unpunk mainstream arena metal acts; GISM, on the other hand, embraced the cheese with unlikely but effective results. In fact, it might even be somewhat misleading to refer to some of GISM’s rockist influences as “metal” at all, at least as most understand that term in 2002, and therein lies the secret of Japanese hardcore’s successful appropriation of “metal” ever since, even as the crossover did untold damage to Western hardcore. American and British outfits took their cues from the speed/thrash and nascent death metal sub-genres. This initially lead to strong hardcore records fortified with the crunch and power of metal, but quickly lead to weak hair-farmer fodder as the metal went from influence to allegiance (see the CRO-MAGS and DRI entries for examples). Given that these newer forms ultimately emphasized leaden heaviness and yawn-inducing technicality over the punk priorities of energy and rawness, such disappointment seems in retrospect to have been inevitable. GISM-- and more specifically late guitarist Randy Uchida-- avoided this fate by instead drawing inspiration from earlier, pre-thrash forms of hard rock and purist heavy metal, especially the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) bands.
Comprised of the young, unrefined UK metal outfits like IRON MAIDEN, SAXON, SAVAGE and DEF LEPPARD that appeared in the late ‘70's and very early ‘80's, the NWOBHM was to heavy metal specifically what punk had been to rock’n’roll in general circa 1977-- a revolution from below that rejected bloated prog excess in favour of a leaner, more down-to-earth approach. The NWOBHM is perhaps now best known for providing bands that would go on to become the old guard that they aimed to reject-- and for being METALLICA’s key inspiration-- but it was clearly also a crucial influence on GISM’s energetic, muscular metalpunk. Similarly, the band’s bizarre glammish appearance and squealing guitar solos betray the influence of exactly the sort of post-AEROSMITH hard rock that was all the rage in North America at the time, often with barely-disguised (if embarrassing, from this side of the fence) punk roots. Flamboyant rockers like MOTLEY CRUE, FASTER PUSSYCAT and Finland’s HANOI ROCKS were infamous for playing quick, sleazy hard rock that was inspired more by the NEW YORK DOLLS and the SEX PISTOLS than BLACK SABBATH or MOUNTAIN. Dreadful stuff indeed, but in GISM’s capable hands, these disparate influences were to be grafted onto the traditional DISCHARGE/MOTORHEAD chassis, souped up to reach the occasional TERVEET KADET sort of tweaked velocity, given an extra dose of genuine psychosis and transformed into something strange and wonderful. Obnoxious as hair metal was, it remained far closer to the sound of rock’n’roll than the otherwise more acceptable thrash metal that was to corrupt Western hardcore into virtual extinction by the early ‘90's. The overwhelming influence GISM (and their like-minded contemporaries GASTUNK and the EXECUTE) maintained on Japanese hardcore transmitted these influences effectively, ensuring that even the fiercest, heaviest outfits-- DEATH SIDE, BASTARD, CRUDE-- were able to incorporate the gruff vocals and wild lead guitar work that have become the hallmark of A-list Japcore, without ever sacrificing an ounce of punk energy and roughness.


CORROSION OF CONFORMITY “Animosity” LP (Death, 1985)
Like so many of the crossover outfits, North Carolina’s CORROSION OF CONFORMITY were a product of the early ‘80's hardcore explosion, making their vinyl debut on ‘83's “Why are we here?” compilation 7" and turning in a well-received brace of raw, noisy thrashers later that year on their “Eye for an eye” LP. Although the band were inspired by the positive-minded and political side of the hardcore scene, the DC/Dischord variety in particular, their music progressed rapidly from its initial punk genericism, combining a guttural, twisted ugliness reminiscent of DC outfits VOID and UNITED MUTATION with a raw, pounding interpretation of pre-thrash metal.
While by no means a slow band, COC were nowhere near so reliant on speed as most other metallic hardcore outfits, rejecting simple thrash in favour of heavy, lurching BLACK SABBATH-rooted power and extended, discordant lead breaks. Like a more extreme version of post-“Damaged” BLACK FLAG, they were attempting to filter the heavy metal of their youth through the rougher, more aggressive style of hardcore, and this technique proved extremely popular, especially with metal fans looking for something of substance (as they understood it) among the barrage of lightspeed three chord thrashpunk. Of all the “punk” crossover bands, only DRI were more popular. Fashionably catchy three-initial acronym names and memorable, t-shirt-and-sticker-ready logos made both COC and DRI easily marketable commodities for the large metal indies (like Death and Metal Blade) that smelled money in the new genre, and the two bands soon served to define the term together. After their ‘85-’87 honeymoon, however, they quickly parted ways stylistically. While DRI paid the rent by releasing album after album of formulaic crossover metal, COC alienated the mosh-hard crowd with a series of progressively slower, harder-rocking records, carving themselves out a respectable major label niche as a non-braindead hard rock band, and they continue to record as such today.

RAW POWER “Screams from the gutter” LP (Toxic Shock, 1985)
The most renowned of Italy’s many superb ‘80's hardcore outfits, RAW POWER left thrash freaks around the world drooling with a succession of absolutely devastating compilation appearances and a barely-distributed debut LP on infamous rip-off label Meccano Records. Their best-known track was “Fuck authority”, a clear standout on MRR’s “Welcome to 1984" LP, a veritable who’s who of international early ‘80's hardcore. The song was a rabid blast of pure hardcore rage, with pissraw guitars and thunderous drums racing along beneath the most deranged shrieks yet committed to vinyl; to this day, as close to a perfectly realized hardcore song as one will hear anywhere. Elsewhere, songs like “You shock me” and “Raw power” prove that the band were consistently recording the most devastating punk thrash in the world. Such unrestrained intensity was not easily maintained, however, and a combination of increased musical proficiency and the predictable physical ravages of Mauro’s throat-ripping vocal style-- he was simply unable to sing like that night after night on their first US tour-- would soon lead to a refinement of their fury. That this refinement would reflect the influence of the embryonic crossover is hardly surprising; the band were on tour in the USA when they recorded this sophomore LP, and it was 1984. To a band clearly capable of playing their instruments proficiently, wishing to develop their musical attack without softening or wimping out in the process, the advent of the new American thrash scene (METALLICA, SLAYER, ANTHRAX etc) must have been revelatory.“Screams from the gutter” was one of the first records by an established hardcore band to display a blatant thrash metal influence-- indeed, very few of the seminal thrash records had even appeared yet. With its insistent double-bass drumming, wailing twin guitars and much tighter, more controlled execution, however, there is little mistaking the band’s intent, and ZERO BOY Paul Mahern’s excellent production brings all of the elements together in perfect balance.
For all of RAW POWER’s obvious metallic leanings, the record nonetheless resides comfortably in the hardcore punk realm; the leads are still cacophonous, the severity unleavened by the bass solos and acoustic intros of the speed metal acts and the vocals rejecting the standard metal crooning in favour of angry shouting that still occasionally slipped into the anguished shrieks of earlier efforts. As such, it was hugely influential to an entire generation of hardcore and underground metal kids, sales of 40 000 copies suggesting an influence far beyond what would ever have been conceivable had they stuck with the tuneless ferocity of previous efforts. Gradually, the band would inevitably fall victim to its own most regressive longhair tendencies, going on to release several LPs of decent but uninspired crossover and speed metal, but “SFTG” remained the most popular release by far, ensuring that they would remain best-known for this supremely powerful slab of concentrated violence.

DRI “Dealing with it” LP (Death, 1985)
Perhaps no single band’s career so handily illustrates the arc of the crossover as that of seminal thrash outfit DRI. Formed by bored punk kids in 1982, Houston’s DIRTY ROTTEN IMBECILES debuted with 1983's “Dirty rotten EP” 7" (later reissued on 12" as the “Dirty rotten LP”); even in an era of short songs, fast playing and rough sound quality, the record’s 22 bursts of raw, chaotic noise created quite a stir. With non-existent production values and song lengths measured in seconds, “Dirty rotten” (along with similar efforts from GANG GREEN, NEOS, LARM and DEEP WOUND) seemed to have pretty much defined the outer limit of the early hardcore aesthetic, about as far from the technicality and high-gloss presentation of contemporary heavy metal as possible. That such a barrage of insane speed could provide an exhilarating rush is undeniable, but the formula also leaves no room for progression or further exploration. This was hardly an appealing prospect for any band not content to churn out xerox copies of the same record, and like DISCHARGE, RAW POWER and many more of the fiercest hardcore units, DRI soon set out to hone their chaos into something sharper and more controlled. Their next record, 1984's “Violent pacification” EP, hinted at the band’s impending direction with its longer, more powerful title track, although the other songs continued in the simplistic but effective loudest/fastest vein of the first record. The full extent of DRI’s pioneering fusion of thrash and metal would have to wait until the band’s first real full-length, 1985's “Dealing with it” LP.
Viewed over twenty years later, “Dealing with it” represents the crossover ideal. With its blinding speed, pissed vocals and 25 tracks, this is very much a hardcore record, entirely bereft of frills or pretence. That said, what makes it not just another hardcore record, but rather one of the finest ever made, is the skilful recuperation of metallic influences. The overall sound is a thick, burly double-bass-driven roar, with frantic leads erupting and collapsing back into buzzsaw rage and blunt-instrument chug. Brief steamroller passages break up the thrash, and a couple of outstanding mid-tempo numbers tracks prove no less potent than the otherwise consistently mach speed numbers. Upon its release, DRI became perhaps the most popular hardcore band in the world. While 1985-86 saw the first wave of hardcore bands mellow out or break up (BLACK FLAG, DEAD KENNEDYS, BAD BRAINS, HUSKER DU, MISFITS, SS DECONTROL, DOA et al), and countless three-chord outfits peddle a tired rehash, the crossover bands alone were able to retain the power and intensity while still offering something new, and DRI sat comfortably at the forefront of this movement. Never a band to be overly concerned with subtlety, and no doubt eager to capitalize on this new-found status, they chose to name their next record “Crossover”.
Released in 1987 on Metal Blade, “Crossover” was a huge disappointment. While one might not be advised to judge a book by its cover, this LP would suggest that one might easily do so where a heavy metal record is concerned; in place of the rough, unpleasant artwork found on earlier records, the jacket bore a garish silver rendition of the band’s “moshing man” logo, and that was just a start. A quick survey of the back cover revealed a mere dozen tracks, and things only got worse upon the needle hitting the groove. The metal elements with which DRI had deftly fortified their hardcore on the preceding LP had taken over nearly entirely, with a much slower, “heavier” approach prevailing, and a cleaner, production job sapping the fast parts of their ragged energy and leaving a powerless, monotonous drone. From frantic but unfocused hardcore through tight, ripping thrash and onto routine, tedious metal, DRI had provided a handy guide to the potential and pitfalls of the punk/metal crossover in three successive albums.

SLAYER “Reign in blood” LP (Def Jam, 1986)
The masterpiece-- a record that served as the Dreadnought of metal, its release instantly rendering all metal past obsolete and, perhaps, all metal to come redundant.
From the opening note until the ominous ending, "Reign in blood" is a non-stop barrage of undiluted metallic fury, alternating seamlessly between the most piledriving, intense thrash yet conceived and lumbering, bludgeoning forays into perfectly-executed moshchunk. King and Hanneman's frequent leads are horrifying-- technical enough to leave the heshers enthralled, but so atonal and harsh that punks raised on DISCHARGE and BLACK FLAG will still be floored. Araya's voice is perfect, a mid-range roar ensuring that every word in praise of Satan and unleashed evil remains completely legible, and of course Dave Lombardo's drumming is staggering, the engine and foundation that makes all of this brutality possible. If it is true that "the essence of sin is in the taking of heaven by storm", then this LP would be the soundtrack to such an endeavour.
This most revered of metal records is essentially a metal band’s attempt (conscious or not) at making a hardcore record; SLAYER might have enjoyed Rick Rubin’s excellent production and a musical prowess far beyond that of virtually any hardcore band, but the speed and rage that make the album what it is would have been unthinkable five years before. Had the likes of DRI, ADRENALIN OD and SEPTIC DEATH not broken speed limits in the early ‘80's, SLAYER might well have been playing JUDAS PRIEST covers still. What set this record firmly in the metal camp, however, is its ruthless sterility and precision, a fundamentally inhuman, almost fascistic quality that is anathema to rock’n’roll of all stripes, but quite appropriate to a style attempting to invoke the musical manifestation of evil; death metal, indeed. The punk that SLAYER was feeding on remained frenetic and wild in its fury, but the band’s inherent rockist sheen prevailed over any rawer impulses in their interpretation of thrash.
The irony is that the LP ended up inspiring an entirely new direction in the hardcore scene that it drew from-- yet that influence was absolutely regressive, and ultimately neutered the very elements in hardcore that had made “Reign in blood” such an astonishingly great record. This is where the crossover bit back. Within six years of the LP’s release, American hardcore was virtually a dead issue, awash with countless bands pushing the blandest mediocrity imaginable-- and all in the name of SLAYER. As the new breed of American “hardcore” developed increasingly independently of old school hardcore and punk rock in general, “Reign in blood” was constantly touted as the source of inspiration, its heaviness and technicality imitated (but, needless to say, rarely duplicated) ad nauseam as its speed, brevity and abandon were ignored, and the resulting music-- think Earth Crisis, Snapcase or any other sluggish, forgettable crap on Victory-- represents the nadir of the last twenty years’ hardcore, a shameful era from which it has only in the past few years begun to recover.

CRO-MAGS “The age of quarrel” LP (Profile, 1986)
One of the most truly original products of American punk, this excellent record signalled the advent of an entirely new era in hardcore history. In retrospect, its influence upon the music’s direction has, like SLAYER’s, proven nearly entirely negative, but taken alone it is a near-perfectly realized fusion of complimentary punk and metal elements.
Many of these songs originally appeared as demo in 1984, and a back-to-back listening of the demo and the (re-recorded) LP is instructive. The cassette is a bona fide classic; tough, fast and definitive New York hardcore with an emphasis on the mosh. Usually credited to the BAD BRAINS, mosh was a crucial stylistic innovation that consisted of abrupt, dynamic mid-tempo breaks in the midst of the usual speedy rush. The mosh part was first heard on such early BAD BRAINS hits as “Right brigade” and the Rastas took it along with them when they left their DC home for NYC in the early ‘80's, where the hard, danceable style was eagerly embraced by a new wave of seminal NYHC outfits. On the LP, however, the songs take on a whole new dimension. The mid-tempo passages are supremely tight and ominous, while the thrash remains raw and powerful. The standard 1-2 punk drumming of the demo session has been replaced by a much heavier rhythmic thunder, and the vocals are strong and dramatic, more singing than hardcore shouting but not the affected crooning of mere metal bands. The metal influence here is clear, but entirely subservient to the hardcore agenda-- less a matter of particular borrowed attributes than a general hardening of approach. There is not an ounce of flab on this recording, metallic excess rejected in favour of a disciplined, streamlined attack and controlled power. Metal fans and hardcore kids responded with equal fervour. The band’s live set was legendary, and an infamous 1986 US tour with MOTORHEAD brought that home to both crowds.
Subsequent to this record, legions of bands around the world sought to mimic the CRO-MAGS’ version of hardcore crossover, soon to become synonymous with NYHC to the extent that the latter term became more a stylistic indicator than a geographic reference. Driven apart by an astounding soap opera scenario of personality conflicts, drug abuse and business issues, various incarnations of the band have released a number of records and toured under the CRO-MAGS name. Like many of the outfits discussed in this piece, however, they never did come close to equalling the quality of their early material, and it seems a safe bet that they never again will.

NAPALM DEATH “Scum” LP (Earache, 1987)
This seminal LP is generally credited with inventing the entire grindcore genre, but I would argue that its actual achievement was, much like that of the RAMONES debut, less a matter of invention than the artful (or inspiringly artless!) uniting of existing threads-- in this case, of severe hardcore and metal-- into an end product so forceful that people had no option than to finally recognize the validity of said impulses by granting them a genre of their own. By no means is this to take anything away from NAPALM DEATH; their outspoken homage to exactly those predecessors (SIEGE and LARM on the punk side, REPULSION and MASTER on the metal end) indicates that they were all too happy to give credit where credit was due to cult ultrathrash outfits.
While the extremity of these speedier passages have guaranteed this record’s place in the history books, however, the more crucial influences are more pedestrian than obscure tape-trade faves like SIEGE. “Scum”’s core sound is a rough-hewn blend of HELLHAMMER/early CELTIC FROST’s gravelly guitar textures and creepy-crawl riffs with the primal hardcore structures and quick delivery of DISCHARGE and their Swedish progeny. While the resulting heaviness and caveman grunting made for easy comparison to such contemporary metal primitivists as DEATH, NECROPHAGIA and the like, the literate political lyrics and atonal, self-destructing Ginn/Bones-inspired leads betrayed the band’s peacepunk roots-- in fact, the overwhelming bleakness of ND’s drone ultimately recalls the textures of earlier RUDIMENTARY PENI or AMEBIX efforts sped up to inhuman velocity. This is especially noticeable on the more structured first side, recorded in 1986. The second side, recorded almost a year later and with a different line-up, finds the outfit playing essentially the same style, but the band has cut down on their grinding in favour of more relentless bursts of speed. This makes for some rather spectacular examples of absolutely tuneless noisethrash at its best-- songs which in their anonymous brutality render pointless just about every record that was to follow in the same vein-- but the true highlights of the LP remain the more distinct, structured efforts of the first side. “Instinct of survival” and “Siege of power” might not generate quite the apocalyptic head-erupting grindcore whirlwind holocaust appeal of Side 2's 15-second blurblasts, but you’re a lot more likely to remember the titles six months later.
“Scum” is a fine record. It’s also an economically sound release, and not only on the strength of its 28 tracks-- owning this slab pretty much releases one from needing to waste money on any further grind vinyl, although the second LP’s refinement of the ultrahigh-speed attack makes a worthwhile investment for anyone who just can’t get enough of the debut’s second side. None of the subsequent full-lengths are worth owning, marred as they are by scruffy new Floridian members and the ensuing death metal overkill that necessarily followed, but don’t let them deter you from exploring this near-unlistenable gem of a debut.

False starts, blind alleys and aftershocks:
TANK “Filth hounds of Hades” LP (1982)/WARFARE “Pure filth” LP (1984)
UK MOTORHEAD freaks mix NWOBHM crunch with punk energy for a fast, stripped-down style that never quite took off as it should have...perhaps the world’s just not big enough for more than one MOTORHEAD?

DYS s/t LP(1984)/YDI “Black gold” LP (1984)/SSD “Break it up” LP (1985)
No crossover here, just erstwhile hardcore heroes striking out hard as they attempt to emulate trad heavy metal without bringing a bit of new energy or ferocity to the plate.

ENGLISH DOGS “To the end of the earth” 12" (1984)/ANTISECT “Out from the void” 7" (1985)/SACRILEGE “Beyond the realm of madness” 12" (1985)/ONSLAUGHT “Power from hell” LP (1985)
The Britpunk crowd hear the first two METALLICA records and a serious lead poisoning epidemic ensues.

AGNOSTIC FRONT “Cause for alarm” LP (1985)/S.O.D.”Speak English or die“ LP (1985)/ CRUMBSUCKERS “Life of dreams” LP (1986)/CARNIVORE s/t LP (1986)
NYHC turns into NYHM, and the results are musically tepid and ideologically regressive; the Ozzy fans love it. Mosh it up, dude.

AMEBIX “Monolith” LP (1987)/AXEGRINDER “Rise of the serpent men” LP (1988)/HELLBASTARD “Heading for internal darkness” LP (1988)/DEVIATED INSTINCT “Rock’n’roll conformity” LP (1988)
The birth of “crust”, as DISCHARGE/Swedish hardcore-obsessed British anarcho trash rediscover BLACK SABBATH en masse, in the shadow of NAPALM DEATH.

Et al:BROKEN BONES/POISON IDEA/ACCUSED/LEEWAY/CASBAH/EXECUTE/ATTITUDE ADJUSTMENT/HEIBEL/RATTUS/FINAL CONFLICT/BEYOND POSSESSION/CRYPTIC SLAUGHTER/ REPULSION/SUDDEN IMPACT/DEATH SIDE/ARMAGEDOM/CIVILISED SOCIETY/CONCRETE SOX/RATOS DE PORAO/S.O.B./VERBAL ABUSE...

3 Comments:

At 9:28 pm, Blogger Oliver said...

Hey Simon, this is Oliver aka syndicalist. This is good stuff. Have you thought about or tried to get this printed in a punk magazine anywhere? You should!

 
At 9:30 pm, Blogger Oliver said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 10:36 am, Blogger Oliver said...

An afterthought:

1987's Neurosis Pain of Mind LP or their Aberration EP before that -- what say ye, in the context of the metal/punk, crust metal, etc. cross over and the lasting influences of the LP?

 

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