The Norwegian legends keep pumping out one amazing album after another but this 2008 release is my pick of their modern output. Black metal of the proto variety (my favourite kind): evil primitivism from the nurseries of real metal sound. Both Nocturno Culto and Fenriz are on top form throughout. Culto’s sideways, frosty riffing is at genius level on tracks like Death Of All Oaths (Oath Minus) and Fenriz blasts out crusty, howling Mercyful Fate-style traditional metal. His tracks Hanging Out In Haiger and The Winds They Called The Dungeon Shaker stand out as favourites but this whole album is top drawer fist-clenching fun with a dark intimidating atmosphere.
HMO Rating: 5 out of 5
[Darkthrone – The Winds They Called The Dungeon Shaker]
With vocalist Ralf Scheepers out the band, hell bent on joining Judas Priest, Gamma Ray guitarist (and former Helloween guitarist/lead vocalist) Kai Hansen decided to make a surprise, and welcome, return to the mic. The re-jigged German band found a renewed sense of vitality and their fourth album, 1995’s Land Of The Free, proved to be their best yet. It’s a definitive power metal classic: humungous, anthemic heavy metal goods properly delivered by a band on a mission.
The opening track Rebellion In Dreamland is metal at its gloriously epic best and tracks like Man On A Mission and All Of The Damned feature precision hooks. The band’s earlier albums often stumbled into silliness but this is a more serious and consistent effort. The only overly jolly moment comes when, yet another former Helloween vocalist, Michael Kiske joins the band for Time To Break Free. But it’s a very minor grumble and, for the most part, this has all the stately riffage, wild soloing, singalong choruses, fairy feller interludes and last-ale balladry you could possibly want. Gamma Ray achieve hero status for persevering with bombastic trad metal at a time when it was totally out of fashion and their musical bravado found the perfect home in Land Of The Free.
The departure of Martin Walkyier from superb UK thrashers Sabbat was a major disappointment but the talented frontman wasted no time, forming a new band Skyclad with members of Satan and Pariah. Their 1991 debut album TheWayward Sons Of Mother Earth had plenty of the Ye Olde thrash Martin was known for but innovated with its incorporation of folk elements. And lo, a new genre – folk metal – started right here.
Martin delivers his caustic rants on social justice and ecological doom with raging charisma, backed by Steve Ramsey’s powerful and deft guitar work. There are huge thrash hooks in songs like The Cradle Will Fall (I am human!) and gothic closer Terminus but the band’s dark, dense Euro thrash does get fatiguing at times and the album is at its creative best during its folkier moments. The Widdershins Jig is a jaunty highlight (with a riff surely inspired by children’s TV show The Riddlers), Moongleam and Meadowsweet is beautifully lush (with gorgeous guest guitar from Sting’s Dominic Miller) and dramatic bursts of violin liven up thrashers like Sky Beneath My Feet and Our Dying Island.
The Wayward Sons Of Mother Earth’s combination of labyrinthine thrash and pagan textures has proved remarkably durable over the years. More notable and eclectic offerings were to come, as Skyclad followed their prolific, fiddle-mad muse to become one of the most unique and influential British metal bands of the 90s. But the debut has a uniquely apocalyptic appeal that still makes it a go-to in the band’s impressive discography. Not a perfect debut but an attention-grabbing and adventurous one.
Frontman Blackie Lawless might be flying his shock rock flag high on the cover but the only things worth rallying behind on 1985’s The Last Command are a few decent songs and Lawless’ unique howling rasp of a voice. W.A.S.P.’s eponymous debut was a superbly untamed slice of evil filth but on this second album, the band’s songwriting is sliding into the unremarkable. The free-spirited opener Wild Child and the debauched Blind In Texas are the must-hear tracks but for every song like the fun-but-silly Ballcrusher or the mean, moody Widowmaker there’s a banal Jack Action or the humdrum title track. But, while the balance between the filler tracks and the good ones is dangerously unbalanced, the band’s delivery and that voice manage to just lift the album out of the realm of the ordinary. It’s a good enough time if you’re in the right mood, a bore if you’re not. OK for occasional plays but not regular revisits. At the end of final track Sex Drive, Lawless rolls over and asks “tell me that don’t hit the spot”. Well, it was good fun but I’d be lying if I said the earth moved.
Finding their label Music For Nations wanting, presumably puny, Manowar used the budget they were given to record their third album, 1984’s Hail to England, but used it sparingly: covertly working up an additional batch of tracks which they then used to win a record deal with Virgin/Ten Records. Sneakiness aside, Manowar achieved a heroic feat. They had recorded two of the very greatest albums in the history of heavy metal… at the same time.
So here’s the second of those peerless works, Sign Of The Hammer. It’s pure heavy metal, but Manowar’s explosive and idiosyncratic idea of what that might be. Joey DeMaio leads from the front with his humungous bass riffs and leads but the whole band is on stellar form. Eric Adams sings with absolute authority and commitment, Ross The Boss’ wild, off-the-cuff guitar solos are impossibly exciting and Scott Columbus pounds out the drum equivalent of shouting “FRESH HORSES” at the top of your voice. The songwriting is also godly, with opening lines like “black clouds on the horizon” and “burning embers of the second death will come in the night” 100% guaranteed to give all but the false true metal stirrings.
The album is near flawless. All Men Play On Ten and Animals kick the album off like KISS-on-steroids. Thor (The Power Head) is as thunderous and warring as its title suggests. Mountains is elemental in its epic scope and the black wind conjured up in The Oath and the Sign Of The Hammer tips the album into sheer aural chaos. There’s only one chink in the armour here and that’s the bass noodling of Thunderpick. It’s extremely skippable but, as always with Manowar, there’s mad genius at work as the workout proves to be an effective overture to the sublime album closer Guyana (Cult Of The Damned). Eric Adams excels here, delivering an account of mass suicide with chilling and heartbreaking sincerity.
This album has hopped around the top spot of my favourite albums of all time for decades now, vying with that other work of genius Hail To England. There are times when I seriously wonder if I’ve wasted my time listening to other music when I could have been listening to this and, listening to it again now, I reckon I probably was.
Def Leppard roared onto the UK metal scene with this self-titled EP. Hard to imagine now, but the squillion-selling stars of Hysteria fame had to release this on their own label Bludgeon Riffola after paying for the recording with borrowed money and recording it with borrowed drummer, Frank Noon. It was the kind of DIY move that became a big factor in the growing New Wave of British Heavy Metal and The Def Leppard EP put the Sheffield band right at the forefront of the movement. Before the term NWOBHM had even been coined!
Released in January 1979 the EP features early versions of Ride Into The Sun, Getcha Rocks Off and The Overture: all songs that would be re-recorded later, with varying results. A later Hysteria-era remake of Ride Into The Sun improved on the original’s clunky vocals but that bouncy riff is still killer here and it’s fun to hear Lep in such naïve form. Getcha Rocks Off and The Overture would appear again on the band’s debut album On Through The Night but these are the definitive takes with their lively hot-of-the-press feel. The Overture in particular is a highlight, top epic-metal cobblers that puts the album version in the shade.
None of this is going to blow you away but it’s a fun, interesting listen and must-have for Lep fans. It’s been released in various vinyl editions that might set you back now but it has just been made available digitally for the first time EVER so there has never been a better time to getcha rocks off with this excellent piece of metal history.
With two studio albums behind them, UFO took off in 1974 with the recruitment of the German mad axeman Michael Schenker and the release of their excellent third album Phenomenon.
The spacey tendencies of the band’s earlier work remain in the cosmic balladry of tracks like Space Child and Crystal Light and vocalist Phil Mogg shines on these mellower tracks. But Schenker shows what he can do on the album’s rockers: peppering opener Oh My with fluid leads, chugging infectiously on Doctor Doctor and offering up a veritable guitar goldmine on Rock Bottom. Side two is less memorable but contains two highlights in the majestic Queen Of The Deep and Too Young To Know: a great example of the kind of ultra-catchy storytelling rock that would become the band’s speciality.
More accomplished albums would follow and cement UFO’s place as classic rock giants but Phenomenon more than lives up to the promise of its titular billing with its raw and innocent mix of riffy, trippy boogie. It’s a big favourite of mine and has a uniquely proto-metal place in the UFO discography. Essential listening if you enjoy the early outings of Priest, Scorpions and Budgie and want to hear the development of a style that would be heard later, louder and heavier, in the output of NWOBHM bands such as Maiden, Saxon and Diamond Head.
HMO Rating: 4.5 out of 5
[UFO – Queen Of The Deep]
*note that older versions have ‘Oh My’ swap sides with ‘Too Young To Know’ (also occasionally mis-spelled as ‘Too Young To No’!)