Wednesday, September 30, 2015

3 Undeservedly Panned Albums from 1983

Even the greatest of bands can suffer occasional missteps, turning out an album or two that aren't just below the high standards their earlier releases established, but genuinely, head-shakingly, take-a-swig-to-wash-away-the-taste bad.  It's true that music critics can be a demanding and rather eccentric lot -- and as a profession, they've been off base at times in condemning some amazing albums, bands, or even movements of music -- and fans, as well as the chart numbers and album sales figures they drive can prove a faddish and finicky lot.  But there are indeed efforts and experiments by bands that make even the real cultists, the diehard believer fans ask "what the hell are they doing?"

Some of these  -- think about KISS's concept album Music from the Elder, or the lackluster House of Blue Light (Deep Purple's followup to Perfect Strangers) -- were deservedly panned (though I'm sure someone will disagree with me about that).  With many other albums -- this was a real problem in the mid-1980s -- the problem might be that a band seemingly lost its way, glitzing, glamming up, and softening its sound in order to capture a much larger pop audience.  There were, however, other albums where a band got trashed and thrashed by critics, fans, and record label accountants alike -- and sometimes even came to be the object of derision and disgust for the band themselves -- but didn't really deserve the negative evaluation.  In fact, some of these albums, I'd argue, ought to be regarded as, if not their best, certainly solid -- and by now, classic -- metal work.

When I started thinking about these underrated albums, I realized that somehow 1983 turned out to be a particularly bad year for certain well-established bands, who released some pretty great material that for one reason or another did not find a positive reception, but which has nevertheless stood the test of time.  If you haven't heard these albums, you owe yourself giving them a listen.  Threealbums in particular stick out for me -- if you readers have other solid but originally panned albums in mind, make a case for them in the comments section below!

Number 1: Black Sabbath, Born Again (1983)

For many, this marked one of several particularly low points for a band that was not only present at the creation, but absolutely central to heavy metal.  True, it sports a simply terrible album cover that proved a great disappointment for several of Black Sabbath's members, there were sound issues with the mixing and mastering, and serious incompatibilities emerged on tour between newly hired singer Ian Gillan and the rest of the band.  But, it's still a pretty decent album, and contains several songs that demand a legitimate place in any definitive Sabbath compilation or playlist.  It drew some scathingly negative reviews from critics, and despite decent initial sales, didn't end up going gold.  I remember at the time it came out hearing a lot of derisive dismissals by fellow metalheads.  Quite a few people viewed it a sign that Sabbath was effectively done.  And yet, even at the time, for those who listened to it for what it was, and ignored the band's own dissatisfaction with it, Born Again turned out to be a surprisingly good metal album.

Foremost among these -- no surprise to anyone who has heard the album -- is "Zero the Hero", one of the heaviest of Sabbath songs (it compares against "The Devil Cried," "Iron Man," or "Children of the Grave") and quite possibly one of the heaviest songs in all of heavy metal.  On that one, everything did come together.  A massive trademark Toni Iommi central riff supplemented by fiery, languid soloing, supported by Geezer Butler's tight, heavy, pounding low end, and Bill Ward back on his kit provide precisely the right framework for Ian Gillan's high-energy vocal attack.  Most of the songs on the album do tend to sound quite a bit alike in their basic sound, but with "Zero the Hero" as the anchor for those, that's actually a good thing.  The other standout songs, in my view, are "Trashed", "Hot Line", "Digital Bitch", and "Disturbing the Priest". 


Number 2: AC/DC, Flick of the Switch (1983)

I purchased this album myself at Target a year after its release, in the bargain bin for 99 cents.  The burnout crowd I hung around with had a longstanding tradition of going together to every AC/DC concert in the area -- if they played in Milwaukee, Alpine Valley, or Madison, we were there.  I remember mentioning my purchase of Flick of the Switch -- the followup to Back In Black and For Those About To Rock, two great albums to be sure -- to one of my friends, who retorted:  "Why did you buy the one album by AC/DC that sucked?"  The album sold decently, and eventually hit platinum status.  But the band's expressed desire to get back to a less polished, raw, "back to basics" sound ended up setting them at odds with the prevailing trends, and with their record company (Atlantic) who projected the album wouldn't contain any hits.

Critics didn't like the record, complaining that it was unoriginal, just more of the same, recycling old riffs.  In some sense, they're actually right -- but in a deeper sense, they're dead off.  There's not a single bad song on the entire album, and if they do sound quite a lot like other AC/DC songs, that's not a complaint -- if one thinks it should be made -- that should be directed uniquely or even mainly at this album.  Probably the greatest musical innovation they ever made in their songs was incorporating a cannon into the title track to For Those About To Rock, so it's a little silly to be expecting them to depart from their signature sound.  If you do like AC/DC -- or like me (and my wife, and even my mother-in-law -- did I luck out or what?!), love the classic sound of AC/DC, this is a record you'll want to get (even if you pay full price).  If I had to pick favorite songs from it, I'd select "Nervous Shakedown," "Bedlam in Belgium," and "Guns For Hire."


Number 3: Motorhead, Another Perfect Day (1983)

After Iron Fist, Motorhead's original guitarist Fast Eddie Clarke left the band -- and for a trio, the loss of one member leaves a pretty big gap that would be difficult to fill with a familiar sound.  They brought in former Thin Lizzy guitarist Brian Robertson, who certainly contributed a more melodic sound in his rhythm playing and overlays, and some excellent solos and licks.  Many fans weren't happy with the alteration in Motorhead's sound -- though I personally think they produced some magnificent music -- but Robertson really alienated the fan-base on tour (and drove the band nuts in actually producing the album).  So, it's a somewhat polarizing album among fans.  Some, like me, love it, and consider it among Motorhead's best work -- and that's saying a lot.  Others consider it "weird," even "bizarre."

It's full of songs that many of the band's fans don't actually know, because they don't tend to get played all that often -- you won't find too much of this material on concert playlists, let alone on the live albums -- or  placed into "best of" compilation albums.  And yet, there isn't a single bad, or even questionable, song on this album.  In fact, there's several that particularly stand out as classics -- "Dancing on Your Grave" (which does get played in concert) is perhaps my number one favorite song off the record, a track fully exploiting Robertson's expertise -- as is the groove-driving "One Track Mind."  "Marching Off To War," "Shine," and the title-track "Another Perfect Day" are also must-hear songs. 

A Bonus - Number 4: Diamond Head, Canterbury (1983)

In the case of this great and groundbreaking, but all too often ill-starred and poorly managed, New Wave of British Heavy Metal Band, the key issue was that Diamond Head's new work didn't sound enough like the older work that had garnered them their understandably appreciative fan-base.  This is where the "p-word" one chooses to describe the change in musical direction or development matters.  Did they aim for a pop, more polished sound?  Or should it be understood as a move into progressive rock?  It is clear that the two core members, Sean Harris and Brian Tattler (they managed to fire other members in the process of recording the album!), were dissatisfied with simply composing and playing heavy metal -- but I'd argue that the three great songs on Canterbury arguably represent pushing the limits of the genre, rather than departing from it entirely.

True, the other songs -- indeed the majority of the record -- aren't going to please a metal audience.  Songs like "Out of Phase," "I Need Your Love," or "Making Music" are pretty light, rather disappointing stuff  -- I actually skip over them when I'm playing Diamond Head's body of work.  "One More Night" is practically embarrassing to listen to.  And whatever the title track is supposed to be. . .  well, let's let that deservedly sleeping dog lie.  So, it's not a great or even good album as a whole. . . but that's the thing -- it's not a whole, a unified album.  And so, the summary judgement that it simply isn't any good has to be qualified.  I'm not saying this album, by the way, is underrated in the same manner as the other three I've just discussed.  One can make a case that they are great albums by great bands.  With this one, it's a matter of a great band making several great songs.

What redeems this album is that it includes three classic tracks. "To The Devil His Due" and "Knight of the Swords" are both solid (rather than heavy), crisp and clean, classic metal compositions well worth listening to -- think early Judas Priest or Def Leppard, but more spare, distinctive Diamond Head riffs and hooks, played off against Harris' distinctive voice.  I've got to admit as well that, though some critics have dismissed it as "pretentious" (a complaint that does absolutely fit "The Kingmaker") the song "Ishmael" has really grown on me as I've listened to it over the years, eventually becoming one of my favorites.