Could Have Done Better is one of just two songs that Alien left behind after their brief visit to a NWOBHM scene in the north east of England that was teeming with hairy life. It was recorded as a demo and selected by Neat Records to open their 1982 compilation EP One Take No Dubs. It’s a bit too simplistic and punky for comfort. Even with the wild guitar sound the full and strummy chords sound dated compared to the next generation riffing that many of their contemporaries were putting out. But you can instantly hear why it was picked. It’s a strong tune that instantly implants itself in your mind and it has the electricity and energy of pub-hardened performers. Even if it’s not quite the real deal, it’s the kind of fun obscurity that makes trawling the depths of the NWOBHM so rewarding.
Turn it off: that was basically my opinion when I first heard it on the radio in 1992, but who knew Def Leppard’s cheesemongous Let’s Get Rocked would prove to be such a grower? It’s three chords’ worth of dumb with cringey lyrics, but after countless listens, live performances, steamin’ singalongs and noticing just how incredibly euphoric that guitar solo is, it would be churlish not to appreciate that this song makes me happy. And surely that was the goal. OK, it’s not Lep’s best song by a mile, it’s not even the best song on its parent album Adrenalize, but I’ve got a real soft spot for it. A rock is definitely not out of the question.
Back to 1989 for a song that puts the “power” into power metal. It’s German legends Helloween with a storming version of How Many Tears from their Live In The U.K. album. It’s a full-on assault of pounding vrrrs, grrrs and drrrs. The riffs are Scorpions-on-steroids, late drummer Ingo Schwichtenberg is on ferocious form and when the intro riff returns after a dreamy interlude it manages the impossible feat of being even more gigantic than before.
It’s also a thrill to hear Michael Kiske add his high-flying vocal stamp to a song originally sung by the grittier Kai Hansen (who just plays guitar here). And I believe this is the last recording to feature both Kiske and Hansen until they reunited with the band in 2017. Both are set to appear on the band’s new studio album Helloween, released 18th June. If the album is even half as good as this then I’ll be one happy pumpkin.
Bow to evil sorcery as Nazareth sell their soul to you-know-who. It’s a well-worn story: guy is desperate; thinks God and Jesus aren’t listening; sells his soul to the Devil. And it sounds like it wasn’t a great idea. No Manowar-style “Lucifer is king, praise Satan” triumphalism here. Nazareth sound more like they have a hellhound on their trail.
Sold My Soul isn’t all that exceptional lyrically or compositionally, but succeeds on the strength of its rootsy, swampy delivery and Dan McCafferty’s vocal torment as he repeatedly yelps “I sooold my souuull” in various degrees of anguish. Taken from the band’s 1973 breakthrough Razamanaz, it’s not the first song you’d pick for a playlist but it’s great deep cut that forms the dark heart of one of my favourite albums.
Anathema closed out their career with an album called The Optimist but back in their early days they were pessimistic purveyors of purest woe. Their 1993 debut album Serenades is growling, grinding doom: all funeral drapes, dead loved-ones and weeping willows. It puts a smile on my face though cause I love misery-guts metal and this is a great album to wallow in. The Cathedral-esque Sweet Tears is top drawer and Sleepless‘ goth melody makes it an early favourite of the band’s career. Even the more forgettable tracks like Under A Veil (Of Black Lace) have their share of cool riffs and moreishly sorrowful harmonies. Avant-garde interludes and French lady voices keep things interesting and varied. The 23 minutes of ambient wallpaper music at the end is a bit try-hard and the why/cry lyrics have a naiveté that would persist throughout the band’s career. But these minor quibbles are nothing to get sad about. Serenades is an impressive debut from a band with plenty of reasons to be optimistic.
While other 80s doom giants like Trouble and Candlemass performed metal of mythic, epic proportions, Saint Vitus kept it to the streets. Their brand of doom metal was as scuzzy as it was totally unique. Their punkier take on the genre found more of a home in the hardcore scene: touring with Black Flag and signing to their label SST, who released their debut album Saint Vitus in 1984. A big factor in their sound is the unmistakable bass-heavy guitar tone of Dave Chandler. It washes over the whole album like a drug haze and his loose solos and heavy wah use adds a Hawkwind-style spaciness. Vocalist Scott Reagers’ also excels with his emotive, bombed-out croon. And there’s plenty of punk ‘tude in the writing too: simple song structures, caveman riffs and evil trills. No Sabbath-style rifforamas here; the longer songs are simply longer because they’re slower. But for all the simplicity, Saint Vitus is full of character, atmospheric and addictive. Burial At Sea is a shade over-stretched but the upbeat title-track, the stomping White Magic/Black Magic and the hypnotic Psychopath are all absolute classics. And best of all is Zombie Hunger with its fantastic, distraught vocals from Reagers. “I’m a zombie – my insides have died”. There’s still nothing quite like Saint Vitus. Spaced-out, burnt-out, deadbeat doom. It’s music for losers, but if you have this album in your collection, you’re winning at life.
Y&T had, in the less streamlined guise of Yesterday & Today, made ripples in the 70s with two studio albums and their exciting live performances. But they would make major tremors with their first album of the next decade: 1981’s Earthshaker. The Bay Area band hardened their cock rock with a bold, metallic edge that positioned them (along with bands like Riot) as the Stateside answer to the new wave of heavy bands appearing in Europe.
With their powerful rhythm section, blocky riffs and Dave Meniketti’s Hagar-esque vocals, Y&T stick so close to the Montrose blueprint that they don’t score many points for originality. But these road-hardened rockers know how to show you a good time. Hungry For Rock and Dirty Girl are all pocket and swagger. Meniketti cuts loose with wild Nuge-esque guitar on Shake It Loose and Squeeze and Rescue Me cunningly reworks Zep’s Babe I’m Gonna Leave You into a stomping dancefloor anthem.
Earthshaker‘s musical one-track mind starts to wear a little thin on side two. But the rousing Hurricane, blazing Knock You Out and moody closer I Believe In You more than make up for weaker tracks like Young And Tough. And ensure that Earthshaker is a hearty, hefty serving of meat and potatoes that will satisfy anyone hungry for rock.
Can you feel the groove? Doom metal doesn’t have to be heads-down misery all the time so Cathedral dial in some fun on the wonderful Midnight Mountain. Cathedral started their career by ploughing a miserable, glacial-paced furrow but they weren’t the kind of band to let themselves get pigeonholed for long. Their heroes like Sabbath and Pentagram had room for some swagger and boogie so Cathedral did too. Midnight Mountain‘s snake-hipped rhythm, hand claps and Lee Dorrian’s funky exhortations just never get old. And if that sounds a bit too disco for your liking, don’t forget it’s also thunderingly heavy. Check out the quaking riff four minutes into the song. Can you feel your bowels move?
Magnum. The minute the weather starts getting cooler I reach for this veritable comfort-blanket of a band. Here’s Les Morts Dansant, the centrepiece from their excellent 1985 album On A Storyteller’s Night. Set in WWI, the song describes the execution of a British soldier who has refused to leave the trenches and go over the top. The song title translates as “the dancing dead” as it illustrates the pirouette of the dying soldier as he’s riddled with bullets from the firing squad. It’s a horrific topic but Magnum’s keen moral sense ensures the song is written and performed eloquently and compassionately. Bob Catley sings movingly with his heart on his sleeve as warm keyboards and celestial guitars gradually build to a climax of Baba O’Riley-style power chords. The album cover depicts a wizard relating a fireside tale to a bunch of captivated dwarfs and Les Morts Dansant is basically the musical equivalent. Spellbinding storytelling from a magical band.
Sammy Hagar has always been a divisive figure, not least for being the interloper who dared replace Dave Lee Roth in Van Halen. But when Hagar supporters find themselves unable to convince anyone of Van Hagar’s merits or the quality of his various other outings, they can always rely on one thing: the 1973 debut album from Montrose. It’s an unassailable classic of 70s man rock and one of the earliest examples of party-hearty American metal. Other 70s hard rockers would enjoy more fame and rewards but Montrose‘s cult influence would be heard everywhere from the clubs of the LA glam scene to the garages of the NWOBHM.
So kudos to Sammy for his charismatic vocals and songwriting contribution (“I gave love a chance and it shit back in my face”). But the real star of the show is the band’s guitarist and founder Ronnie Montrose. His superior playing and hot rod riffing is timeless and, in tandem with producer Ted Templeman, he colours the band’s meat and potatoes simplicity with a deceptively rich range of tones. From the spacey, hard-charging Zep chug of Space Station #5 and the revved up intro to Bad Motor Scooter to the monster-plod bludgeon of Rock Candy, Montrose is a treasure-trove of stealable guitar parts and sounds. The old-timey Good Rocking Tonight and One Thing On My Mind lean towards filler but both are served up with charm and stop the album from getting too po-faced.
Unfortunately, Montrose couldn’t make it last. One more (underrated) album later, Sammy would be fired. And he wouldn’t be involved with anything quite this good again. But it can be 1973 forever. Just take your top off, stick on Montrose and rock the nation.