Something about American heavy metal of the ’80’s manages to be comical and quaint. Sure, it doesn’t have the hair or the spandex of the earlier glam metal period, but there is the whiff of Beavis and Butthead about the new Metal that came grinding out of the US in the mid-eighties.
Metallica – Battery
Slayer – Angel of Death
Saint Vitus – Clear Windowpane
Einsturzende Neubauten – Halber Mensch
Metallica are the über-thrash metal band. Their po-faced, earnest view of life, without any glint of sunlight found in the hardcore contempories like, say, The Minutemen, makes them a bit of a drag to listen to. Plus, compared to Swans, they were comparative lightweights. There’s nothing on Master Of Puppets that can compete with the grinding horror of Cop or Greed. Part of this attitude is definitely a touch of revisionism on my part; after all, who can take a band seriously that have therapy sessions and shop at Armani?
I like my rock music to fuckin’ rock, man, and I don’t want excuses. I want my rock bands to drive out to the desert in a pick up truck, take mescaline, and play loud all night surrounded by Mexican drug dealers. I want my rock bands to get stupidly drunk and get into fights, and end up with severe head damage. I want my rock bands to rock. Not talk about their inner demons to a psychologist, then go out and buy a just fine and peachy black mohair sweater. But it was in the sale, dahling!
My dumb attitude aside, would I like Metallica after finally hearing a track from what is widely regarded as their classic album, Master of Puppets? Er, no. Or rather, well, not really. Yes, I can see how they reinvigorated Metal following the hairspray and tapping hell it’d got itself into. Yes, I understand their influence spread far and wide. But it just doesn’t move me that much. “Battery” does start with some elegant, delicate Spanish guitar before a double-tracked guitar presages the coming storm of the phenotype thrash metal riff. Then up steps James Hetfield, gruffling on about “Hungry violence seeker, feeding off the weaker\Breeding on insanity” and the like. For whatever reason though, this song, and Metallica’s material in general, isn’t my thing.
Slayer, on the other hand, eschew the whole question of spoilt whiny American brats playing loud music about why they were so grumpy, by playing loud music about Josef Mengele. That’s show the parents! Seriously though, Slayer took the whole Satan1-worshipping schtick started by Black Sabbath and Judas Priest and took it to a whole new level. Starting at about a billion beats per minute (ok, 210), and heralding a truly magnificent example of the “Testicles caught in a mangle” scream from vocalist Tom Araya, “Angel Of Death” is a far more METAL affair than “Battery”. Dig that mid-song tempo change! Thrill to the yelling about Auschwitz!
Plus, Slayer’s subject matter did not go unignored by the record industry, with the cover being banned and the label disowning the release. For all the fuss about the lyrics though, it seems clear to me that they are hardly glorifying the Holocaust; the song personalises the horrors perpetrated to the listener, putting them in the place of the victims. There’s certainly no indication that the band were trying to do anything other than express their revulsion of the whole thing.
In contrast to the corporate backing of Metallica and Slayer, St Vitus went for the much more indie route. Signed to SST, they were as much influenced by Black Flag and the likes as Metallica and the new thrash metal scene. As a result, the music is more grungy and a clear precursor to the stoner rock of Kyuss (and thence to Queens Of The Stone Age). “Clear Windowpane” is like one of Black Sabbath’s more psychedelic moments, with some of the guitar riffing sounding oddly like Joy Divison gone metal. After quite a few listens over quite a few months, I’ve found myself quite liking this.
Which is where Einsturzende Neubaten come in. The experience of growing up in ’60s and ’70s Germany was far from the comfortable world of the US, yet strangely similar. Germany had experienced a massive consumer boom in the sixties, yet still suffered from the (totally righteous) guilt of the previous generations actions in WWII. So a generation had grown up, surrounded in comfort, yet with an unspoken, hidden history that poisoned this apparent affluence and made the younger generation question everything that their parents told them.
There is nothing quite as disturbing as massed German voices to a child of the WWII generation. All it speaks of is noise and pain, of cattle trucks and gas chambers. And that is all the song is; overlapping fronds of half-understood words. The translation I’ve got doesn’t make a massive amount of sense, though it appears to be about humanity being partially replaced with robotics by some agency (“You don’t see the transmitters and cables\Hanging, laid long ago\From your nerve endings they hang”). The effect is far more chilling than all those thrusting power chords and bollocks in a mangle singing. And not an Armani sweater in sight.
Out of these four bands, I’ve only seen Einsturzende Neubaten live, back in the late ‘80’s. I remember, for some reason, driving down from Bath to London in a knackered old Citroen 2CV with a bloke called James and a lady whose name completely escapes me, and having to fix the accelerator linkage with a bit of cloth. I also remember being amazed by Einsturzende’s use of a long, thin sheet of metal which was bashed with hammers to make a fantastic drum sound. My memory is generally hazy at the best of times2 but there’s a vague memory of angle grinders too. And that we also saw Band Of Holy Joy, about as far from Einsturzende Neubaten in sound as you can get (if not attitude though – their ethos of finding whatever instruments they could find to play, rather than the usual guitar/bass/drums, shows a remarkable similarity).
So, of these Metal acts, of various stripes, which did I like hearing? Einsturzende Neubaten’s “Halber Mensch” is a stunning song, but not something you can comfortably listen to on a regular basis. St Vitus was a surprise, and Slayer is, despite now being a touch cliché-ridden, enjoyable in a funny sort of way. Metallica? Nah.
Next up, we go all nouveau disco, featuring the Rudest Song Ever.
Author’s Note: I’m very sorry this has taken so many months. Sometimes it’s hard to write about music which you don’t feel in your heart. The next lot aren’t going to be that easy either, but I’ll try very hard to get the articles written quicker. Especially as there are some absolute, utter, fantastic records coming up, including two that are in my top-100 best songs ever list. Well, maybe top 500. But you know what I mean3.
1 Did you ever hear about the dyslexic Devil worshipper? He sacrificed a goat to Santa.
2 Damn you, Guinness!
3 You’ll just have to wait and see. Two songs before we got to 1987. Can you guess?
The rest of the Pitchfork articles are here.