This is one winter wonderland you won’t be walking in. Autopsy’s In The Grip Of Winter is one of my absolute favourite death metal tracks. It’s a tale of arctic demise, perfectly expressed with (impending) doom metal swagger, panic-stricken death metal hammering and blizzardy guitar solos. It’s brilliant stuff and one of the tracks I always spin the minute I feel a chill in the air. There’s an even frostier version of this on the Mental Funeral album but this earlier version (from 1991’s Retribution For The Dead EP) emphasises the doom with its humongous, fat sound. But, no matter which version you hear, In The Grip Of Winter is a stone cold classic.
In the early 90s, it seemed like everyone and their dog was recording covers of classic KISS. And death metal pioneers Death were no exception, taking a break from the complex technicality of their 1991 Human album to throw down a cover of God Of Thunder. Originally used as a Japanese bonus track, the cover was presumably intended more as a bit of fun than an important artistic statement as the band don’t do anything radical with the track. Outside of Chuck Schuldiner’s tortured vocals, the relentless double-bass drums and a flashier guitar solo, it’s all pretty faithful to the version on KISS’ Destroyer album. What I find interesting is that, despite the extreme metal growls and drumming, the KISS version remains darker, heavier and cooler. So, although it’s a fun listen in its own right, it also does a good job of reminding you just how powerful KISS were. I guess all those bands were covering their stuff for a reason.
Florida’s Saigon Kick arrived too late for the 80s glam metal party but their 1991 debut album had an eclectic and alternative edge that seemed custom-built for the new decade. The flashy chops and harmonies cast back to the glory days of Ratt, Dokken and the like but colourful shades of Alice In Chains, psychedelia and thrash pointed to the future.
Easy to see why there was a buzz about this band but the eclecticism is a double-edged sword. The variety is impressive and keeps things interesting but also means that for every infectious pop rocker like Colors or moody metaller like New World there’s a cheesy U2-esque Love Of God or the silly cod-angst of What Do You Do. Add banal lyrics to all the style-hopping and the album starts to seem like it’s got little to say.
The hard edge and druggy melody brings to mind contemporaries like Warrior Soul and Enuff Z’nuff but Saigon Kick are inferior to both, with neither Warrior Soul’s incendiary intelligence or Enuff Z’nuff’s depth and taste. There definitely some great stuff here but in an era with a bewildering array of musical flavours on offer, Saigon Kick taste too vanilla.
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.
The Swiss power trio Coroner has often been called the “Rush of Thrash” for their progressive bent and formidable performances. And their albums don’t get much more progressive and formidable than their fourth, 1991’s Mental Vortex. Here’s one of my favourite tracks from it, Son of Lilith. It’s still got enough crunch and neck-snapping intensity to please thrashers but this song is more about precision and groove. It’s got an earworm of a chorus and a guitar solo to die for. Total class.
The 90s were a challenging time for classic metal acts but, for Saxon, the decade got off to a promising start. The “10 Years of Denim & Leather” back-to-basics tour rejuvenated the band. Aiming to carry the momentum into the studio, the band signed with Virgin Records and headed to Germany to record their comeback album Solid Ball of Rock.
Released in 1991, Solid Ball of Rock finds Saxon returning to a heavier, err… ballsier style. It opens with its title-track and most enduring classic: the band taking Bram Tchaikovsky’s Jerry-Lee Lewis inspired rock n’ roller and giving it an AC/DC-grade kick up the arse (with a cool nod to The Sensational Alex Harvey Band in its Faith Healer-esque intro). It’s followed by the equally thrilling Altar of the Gods. Bolstered by the writing contribution* and forceful playing of new bassist Nibbs Carter, it’s a belter of a track with an aggressive, metallic approach that recalls the classic days of Power & the Glory while also pointing the way forward to the band’s future power metal leanings.
It’s an encouraging opening but doubt sets in with Requiem (We Will Remember). The album’s only single, it maintains the feel-good vibe but its sentimentality, U2 jangle and “whoa-ohs” don’t sit well with me. But it proves to be the album’s only real wobble: the remaining tracks alternating between straightforward, open-chord rock n’ roll like I Just Can’t Get Enough and I’m On Fire and top-notch galloping Priest-y metal like Lights in the Sky and Baptism of Fire. The rock n’ roll tracks are a bit disposable by Saxon standards but have an enjoyably bouncy vitality while the metal tracks add crucial depth and grit with the epic, enigmatic Refugee adding class to the album’s late stages. It’s a strong combination of styles and a cohesive collection.
The overall sense with Solid Ball of Rock is of a band rediscovering their spark and spirit. Sticking to the basics but simultaneously mapping out new directions. The album did great business for the band and, although there were still challenging times ahead, Solid Ball of Rock is a pivotal Saxon album: a joyous, rocking reboot.
*Nibbs’ remarkable dominance of the writing credits here turns out to be an exaggeration. With litigious former managers breathing down Saxon’s neck they protected their royalties by crediting most of the songs to Nibbs: the only member of the band with no links to their past contracts. Crafty buggers.
In 1989 the bad news was that Ian Gillan* had been given the heave-ho from the (formerly) reunited Deep Purple. He wasted no time getting his career back on track, releasing the smooth AOR-styled Naked Thunder in 1990 just before Deep Purple returned with their own Slaves and Masters (with Joe Lynn Turner in place of the ousted Ian). Perhaps their return brought out Gillan’s competitive spirit because with his next release, 1991’s Toolbox, he got hard and dirty, dirty, dirty, dirty, dirty…
The lush keyboards of Naked Thunder were gone. Gillan’s new band was a guitar-driven power trio with a sturdy American rhythm section of Brett Bloomfield on bass and Y&T’s Leonard Haze on the drums. Producer Chris Tsangarides did an excellent job with the crisp and warm reverb-heavy sound. Only guitarist Steve Morris remained from Naked Thunder but in a more starring role with his Van Halen riffs and colourful solos all over the new album. While the musical backing is generic it’s also vibrant and lively, inspiring a fantastic Gillan vocal performance full of personality, echoing octave-defying screams, lusty exhortations and witty, playful lyrics. Mostly about shagging. Deep Purple never got this party-hearty but there is still some familiar Purple-esque heft in the bluesy Hang Me Out to Dry and Dirty Dog. The two-part Dancing Nylon Shirt saga is more oddball with its groovy, churning riff although the second part edges a bit on the silly side. And although Toolbox is a light-hearted album overall, there are serious moments like the up-tempo Candy Horizon and Pictures of Hell which are topped with catchy Maiden-esque guitar melodies and maniacal singing. Even the ballad Don’t Hold Me Back has a sense of macho defiance, an album highlight with its lush, surf mood and building chorus. But the album is absolutely priceless when it’s just straight up rock n’ rolling fun: the title-track, Bed of Nails and Everything I Need invoke giddy, breathless joy, blasting your worries away.
A car shaped fanny
A Dong Shaped Bell
A Power Shaped Nap
When it was released, Rock journalist Chris Welch said that if Toolbox wasn’t ‘a huge hit then maybe Rock really is dead’. Alas, Toolbox wasn’t a hit and Gillan was soon back in Purple, the battle raging on. Despite Welch’s dire prognostications Rock managed to live on and so did Toolbox. I always had it down as competent but entertaining but, over the years, I’ve enjoyed it more and more. It’s aged well. It’s the sound of a band that are loving what they do, and one of Rock’s greatest singers on brilliant form. It’s become one of my reset buttons any time my music listening feels uninspired, the kind of life-affirming fun that never dies.
*Worth pointing out that, although the ‘Gillan’ band logo is used on the cover, this release is considered and billed as an Ian Gillan solo album.