Milestones on a personal journey through rock and metal: Part 3

In the second part of my series of posts about the albums that kicked off my love for specific sub-genres of hard rock or metal, I talked about how transformational Metallica was in opening up the thrash metal genre, as opposed to the lighter ‘hair’ or pop-metal that I had been consuming since 1988, which itself was triggered by Def Leppard’s Hysteria. Through 1989 and 1990, I was scouring the rooms of college friends for metal albums. At this time, most of these albums were still not being released officially in India, so we had to rely on vinyl to tape transfers (very high quality), done by professional recording shops located in the big Indian cities (complete with a photocopy of the album sleeve). The other problem was that in the days before the internet or even FM Radio, there was no way of knowing what albums a group had released, except through word-of-mouth or through a reference found in a dog-eared copy of Kerrang! magazine that someone may have purchased on an international trip during semester break. It would sometimes take weeks, months or even years to piece together the discography of a particular band. It is indeed amazing that with all these limitations, I discovered as many groups and albums as I did.

Iron Maiden’s Powerslave, released in September 1984

1989/90, introduction to NWOBHM via Iron Maiden’s 1984 album, Powerslave: I didn’t know about the NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal) ‘movement’ until well into the 90s, which featured the rise of bands like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Def Leppard, who later ‘sold out’ and crossed over into more accessible hard rock and hair metal. Powerslave was the album that got me hooked onto Iron Maiden, a relatively more accessible album compared to their breakout albums The Number of the Beast from 1982. It was the right level of ‘heaviness’ for me to get into the genre and I quickly fell in love with Bruce Dickinson’s soaring vocals and bassist (and primary songwriter) Steve Harris’ distinctive ‘gallop’ style of playing. Iron Maiden were the full package – lyrics tinged with elements of the supernatural, fast-paced and intricately interwoven music, the zombie-like mascot Eddie integrated into the cover art of all their albums and their high-energy live shows (which sadly I’ve never been to), they built up a larger-than-life image. As I write this, I’m reflecting on the fact that all I own is their 2002 greatest hits compilation Edward the Great, whereas I would be happy to own their 3 albums from the mid-80s, Powerslave, Somewhere in Time and Seventh Son of a Seventh Son.

Budgie’s Nightflight, released October 1981

As much as I love Iron Maiden, I never really warmed up to any of the other NWOBHM bands such as Judas Priest, Motorhead or Saxon, though I did very much like Bruce Dickinson’s 1990 solo album Tattooed Millionaire, which is really mainstream hard rock and not a NWOBHM sound. There is however, one cult band I love, which both preceded and defined this era…and that is Budgie. I came across a tape of their 1981 album Nightflight in a small record store in Kerala in 1990 and picked it up because it looked so ridiculous. The music was surprisingly good and I only discovered many years later that they had been around since 1971 and influenced many other musicians, without ever having achieved mainstream success. Described as a cross between Rush and Black Sabbath (with elements of tongue-in-cheek humour, as evidenced by their album covers and songs with names like Nude Disintegrating Parachutist Woman), it’s easy to understand why their music would appeal to me. When Metallica included two of their songs – Breadfan and Crash Course in Brain Surgery – on their 1998 Garage Inc. compilation/tribute album of cover songs of their favourite bands, I truly started to appreciate the extent of their influence and started reading about them on the rock websites that were popping up on the internet in the late 90s. Sadly, their music is not easy to get hold of, with even the selection on Spotify quite limited.

Pearl Jam’s Ten, released August 1991

1992, introduction to grunge via Pearl Jam’s 1991 album, Ten: 1991 was a big year for rock and metal. In August, Metallica jolted the music world with the release of their untitled ‘black album’ and one month later, Guns ‘n’ Roses cemented their status as the biggest band in the world with the simultaneous release of their twin albums Use Your Illusion I and II. In between these two events, an unknown band from Seattle that less than a year earlier had called themselves Mookie Blaylock but then changed their name to Pearl Jam, released their debut album and over the next few months helped put Seattle on the world music map and popularized the grunge sound along with bands like Nirvana. The album started breaking through only about a year later and when I picked it up in 1992 I just couldn’t believe my ears. How could every song be so good, so visceral? Even today, 28 years and 11 studio albums later, this is the album that defines the group for me. The songs are characterized not so much by the musicianship, as was the case with the rock and metal bands of the 60s, 70s and 80s, but by Eddie Vedder’s vocals and the dark songwriting, best exemplified by their hit single Jeremy. Sadly, this focus away from musical virtuosity spelled the end of the hard rock/heavy metal era, as everyone started gravitating towards the punk-influenced, distortion-laden, fuzzy, sludgy sound of grunge and alternative rock.

I didn’t care for this sound as it moved away from the melodies and vocal harmonies that made me fall in love with the genre in the first place, but I did have a few favourite groups from this era. By 1992/93, with MTV available as a programming block on Indian state-owned TV, I was able to watch videos of emerging grunge bands and pick the sounds that appealed to me. I gravitated mostly towards Alice in Chains, specifically their 1992 Dirt album which contains one of my all-time favourite rock songs, Would? which first appeared in the soundtrack of the 1992 movie Singles. My other favourite grunge band was Stone Temple Pilots, triggered by their single Plush from the 1992 album Core which was on heavy rotation on MTV. On their 1994 album Purple, I really liked Vasoline and Interstate Love Song. And last but not least from this genre and era was Soundgarden, specifically their mainstream hit album Superunknown with hits like Black Hole Sun, Fell on Black Days and Spoonman.

1993/94, introduction to guitar virtuosos via Steve Vai’s 1990 album, Passion and Warfare: This is a bit of a cheat entry, for me to say that I was “introduced” to guitar virtuosos in the early 90s. As a rock and metal fan, one of the major elements of a rock track is that guitar solo and for years, fans have worshipped at the feet of virtuosos like Ritchie Blackmore, Jimmie Page and Eddie Van Halen, with even Michael Jackson bringing in Van Halen and Steve Stevens for solos in Beat It and Dirty Diana respectively. But listening to a cool solo as part of a song is one thing and listening to a whole album of intricate guitar playing (which may not necessarily be melodic nor accompanied by good vocals) is another. In the late 80s in college, we started hearing about neoclassical guitarists like Yngwie Malmsteen and Joe Satriani, with the latter having trained some of the rock guitarists of the era and who had released their own solo albums. I listened to a couple of tracks from Satriani’s but didn’t care much for the songs. Meanwhile, I started to really love Steve Vai’s guitar playing on Van Halen vocalist David Lee Roth’s solo album Skyscraper and Whitesnake’s 1989 album Slip of the Tongue. So when I got a chance to purchase a vinyl to tape recording of his 1990 solo album Passion and Warfare, I felt it was a low risk decision. Sure enough, I wasn’t disappointed, with tracks like For the Love of God and my favourite track Sisters. I’m forever grateful that I got to watch Steve Vai live in concert in Malaysia in 2014.

In the late 90s, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Eric Johnson organized a series of tours under the banner of G3 and I picked the first of these recordings G3: Live in Concert. But I have never really gone back to this genre in a big way, much preferring to listen to guitarists play as part of a rock group, or preferring guitar-driven instrumentals like Orion and Call of the Kthulu from Metallica or YYZ from Rush.

I’m pretty much done with this highly enjoyable look back in time. In my final post, I’ll talk about the albums that got me into prog metal and sludge metal.

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