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.
Pentagram were formed in 1971 and are renowned as early doom pioneers but nearly 15 years passed before the cult US band was able to rise from the underground and put out their first album. It was worth the wait. The 1985 self-released debut was originally just called Pentagram but in 1993 it was reissued by Peaceville Records and renamed Relentless after this awesome track. Relentless was penned by charismatic guitarist Victor Griffin and has a walloping tone and simple, strident riff that fully lives up to the promise of the song’s title. The lyrics are a bit clunky but endearingly catchy and they’re a good vehicle for the ‘Ram’s wayward frontman Bobby Liebling to strut his swaggering, streetwise stuff. But the real joy here is the riffin’ of Griffin. His electric axe is gonna knock you on your back.
It’s almost unrecognisable as the band that became a major force in metal years later but the early Sepultura stuff is still pretty remarkable. Brazil wasn’t a corner of the globe where anyone was expecting a metal scene to pop up and when the band recorded their 1985 debut EP Bestial Devastation (a split release with fellow countrymen Overdose) it was just emerging from decades as a military dictatorship. Musically it’s not the most amazing stuff you’ll hear from the era but the band were pretty impressive considering they were all still in their mid-teens. And they got in early enough and extreme enough that their raw, filthy undergound thrash was also a primordial stew of nascent black and death metal.
My favourite track from the EP is Necromancer, with its naive evil lyrics, grinding Celtic Frost riffs, blasts of Discharge-like speed and a wild “all notes matter” guitar solo right out of Slayer. Fun stuff. Unfortunately, my favourite part of the song is a bit that I always mishear and misremember. One of the great metal mondegreens. After the chaotic solo the song returns to a slow sludge as vocalist Max “Possessed” Cavalera sings “necromancer, dead’s invoker”. But in my world this line has always been “necromancer, dirty fucker”. And it always will be! And it’s about time they just ‘fess up and admit that’s what the lyrics really were all along.
After the U.S. the most important country in the story of thrash metal has to be Germany. And in Germany it all started with the debut EP from Sodom. Where German thrash initially differentiated itself from its American counterpart was in crude, primitive blackness. And it doesn’t get much cruder, blacker or more primitive than 1985’s In The Sign Of Evil. It’s all very Venom-inspired with similar levels of punkish ineptitude. Most songs alternate between two caveman riffs and the performance, even on stupidly basic riffs like those in Sepulchral Voice, often unravels. But it was all chaotically evil enough to ensure that Sodom played a crucial role in the “first wave” of black metal and countless black metal bands still draw from this well. Outbreak Of Evil and Witching Metal are catchy-as-hell bruisers, Burst Command ‘Til War predates war metal with its howling pack of dogs chaos and Blasphemer ramps up the evil with Vincent Price laughs and entertainingly crap satanic lyrics… “masturbate to kill myself”. It’s the kind of entry-level simplicity that means new bands still fancy their chances at emulating it. But few have. In The Sign Of Evil is still a cut above with songs that live in the memory and in the band’s set-list to this day.
“Welcome all you fuckers/seeking evil excitements/yeah! You want to be cool” Of course you do! Then why not impress all your friends by listening to Bulldozer’s excellent debut album The Day Of Wrath. The Italian band was often written off as Venom clones but they were a more musically capable outfit (check out the maniacal guitar soloing throughout Mad Man) and edged very close to the crude Teutonic thrash of bands like Destruction and Kreator. And even if it didn’t exactly break new ground, Bulldozer’s debut endures on the strength of its songs and its attitude. The album is laden with killer riffs and hooks: from the sacreligious darkness of Welcome Death, the marauding Cut-Throat, the seductive Great Deciever and the unforgettable party-banger Whisky Time (“It’s fucking whisky time!”). Falls short of full points due to skippable intro/outro shenanigans but make no mistake! If you’re an uncool fucker, seeking evil excitement… it’s fucking Bulldozer time!
Saxon’s Krakatoa is an explosive B-Side from their 1985 single Rock N’ Roll Gypsy. It’s a lively old-school banger very much along the lines of their classic Power And The Glory. Probably a bit too much like it… which might explain why it never made it on to an album. But even if it is Saxon-by-numbers, it’s got more fire and grit than a lot of the stuff that made it on that year’s Innocence Is No Excuse. And if you’re one of those fans that found that album a bit too Def Lep for your liking, this track will be right up your alley.
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.
Guitar magazines would have you believe that Yngwie J. Malmsteen’s Rising Force was THE ONE, which is fair enough given its classic feats of guitar mastery like Black Star and Icarus Dream Suite Op. 4. Those are rightfully legendary instrumentals and justify the album’s status as a guitar classic. But Yngwie’s debut fell down a bit on the actual song front and the band’s stiff delivery of the vocal numbers. If you’re actually just wanting a fuck-off classic METAL record, follow-up Marching Out is the music of the Gods.
Guitar fanatics needn’t worry, there’s still plenty of heroic guitar acrobatics from Yngwie but the whole band ups their game here. Fleet-fingered keyboardist Jens Johansson gives God’s guitar teacher a right run for his money on the widdle front and the whole band is more driving, less ploddy than on the debut. But the star here is Jeff Scott Soto. He totally finds his voice on this. His passionate delivery on tracks like Soldier Without Faith and I Am a Viking is absolutely infectious. Try not to join in, tankard raised, with the chorus to Anguish and Fear. You can’t. Not if you’ve got blood in your veins. I am a Viking, I’ll walk all over you. Triumphant, warfaring power metal. That’s what I’m talking about!