1983 - The Year That Forged Metal - Part 1
M.DREW: This year we embark on an examination of not a single musical entity, but of an entire year. We chose to examine 1983 not because it was the year I was born (though there is that,) but because so much of what we've come to know as "metal" in modern times was launched in some form during this calendar year. Everyone obviously points to the Big New Wave of American Thrash (Anthrax, Megadeth, Metallica, Slayer,) but so much more than that happened in this burgeoning genesis of so many different metal sub-genres. First of all, the Second Four (as I've taken to calling them) of Exodus, Overkill, Testament (as Legacy) and Nuclear Assault were all either formed or active in this time frame (if not this specific year,) which cemented thrash not only as the next huge evolution of heavy metal, but as the first solidly American one, a distinction that was not lost on those who were a part of it. From 1983 until probably 2002, American bands good bad and ugly had a pretty solid stranglehold on heavy metal innovation, a generational chunk that floated through a lot of faces, but never altogether relinquished the reins.
Aside from the popular growth of thrash, forces in metal were brewing within America and without, in very divergent directions. On one hand, Pantera was formed in Texas, and while their first album was a (hard-to-find) glam-influenced record, it wouldn't be long before the band would set a benchmark for heavy metal nastiness that has yet to be moved. As a concert veteran, I have seen a very small number of bands who is capable of moving the crowd as mere house music; it is a party of one, and Pantera is the only member.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Mayhem officially took shape, a band who may have borrowed inspiration from Venom, but essentially turned black metal in a real, viable force to be reckoned with, both as a band who could write punishing songs and a group of individuals capable of terrible things in their personal life. For better or worse, the actions of Mayhem helped to irreversibly push the public face of heavy metal to the margins, forever consigning the genre to the corners of public opinion and acceptability. It's a curious space to thrive in, but one that heavy metal bands and fans alike have come to embrace as endemically their own.
Still more was bubbling under the surface of metal's uprising in 1983, as Seattle was just starting to percolate as the musical scene of choice, and Soundgarden, Green River and several others started meeting up and forming and began writing songs. While the grunge movement wouldn't truly take off until 1991, grunge’s story begins in the sweaty, dirty basement showcases of Seattle's underground, embracing not only the youth's thirst for a musical change, but the chance to kill off hair metal forever.
This is just a smattering of the major metal events of 1983, but the list goes on and on of bands who formed or debuted, many of which I'm sure we'll touch on here.
As a starting point, I will say that the first thing that comes to mind when I think of all these acts is sheer longevity. So many of them are still kicking and experiencing success, many to the same degree they did in their heyday. Prior to this, the concept of a musician still being active thirty years after their founding was nigh unthinkable, with the exception of the Rolling Stones, about whom my dad used to say that they'd still be on tour when the events of the TV show Babylon 5 were to take place. So many of the previous artists career, or at least their productivity (and in many cases their actual lives) had ended after little more than a decade. So this wave of musicians from 1983 sticking it out is testament not only to their talent and enduring fanbase, but to their very conviction concerning the music they make.
Looking back with a sense of nostalgia, which is weird considering I couldn't possibly have a memory of the time, the biggest takeaway I have of 1983 is that it has as much claim as any other year as the most important in the history of heavy music. The number and stature of bands that formed, and debuts that were released, is staggering. Any fan of heavy music can find something in 1983 that directly links them to the time.
I say that knowing full well that I might be the only person for whom that statement isn't true. What amazes me about 1983 is that, for all the legendary bands we will be talking about, my own musical identity has little in common with the dominant themes that emerged from the primordial swamp from which we were also spawned. So much of the following history of heavy metal can be traced to an origin point in 1983, but I am not one of them. The strands of our music I cling to were still yet to be unraveled, so my view of this moment in time is a bit different than what I expect most people would say.
I have affection for certain sections of Slayer's career, and the utmost respect for what Metallica and Mercyful Fate mean to heavy metal, but there are very few records tied to these bands that I am genuinely a fan of.
"Kill 'Em All" especially is a record I have a hard time coming to terms with. It is, in many ways, the most important record to arrive after the formative bands of heavy metal, yet it is one I struggle to listen to with the same sense of wonder and awe that I know I would have had I been around to hear it fresh in 1983. Listening back, so much of the music of that day sounds incomplete, like amateurish versions of what would later come. That's what it is, really, and it's absolutely the charm those records have. A record like "Kill 'Em All" works because it sounds like a basement demo pressed on cheap vinyl. But the strains of early 80's music; the anger, the aggression, the spirit of rebelling against everything that had come before, they're sentiments I can't relate to in the slightest. I never had that period of my life when I felt that way, I was never the angry young man, so I only hear music, not a mission statement. And as music, the formative elements don't interest me as much as the finished products do. "Kill 'Em All" lacks the focus the next two Metallica albums honed, Slayer had yet to pare their ferocity to the throat-ripping core, and Mercyful Fate hadn't yet figured out how to use King Diamond's voice within a musical context.
Legendary bands started, and huge statements were made, but to me 1983 was merely the opening salvo for a much larger movement.
I do wonder, and would like to ask, how much of our reverence for these artifacts of metal history are because of the stories we've heard about them, and how much is a reflection purely of the music? I think my feelings will diverge wildly if I'm able to separate the two.
M. DREW: I don't know that there's a clear answer to your question, because much like some of the best stories in sports and legend, the stories we've heard about these albums and artists are as much a part of the music as the bands themselves. It's nearly impossible to think of Mayhem in particular as a solely musical identity. Their music fed into their image and vice-versa: for a long time, black metal was both a sound and an ideal. (Although I hesitate to call it an ideal given that it more than occasionally involved murder, arson and hate.)
On a less dramatic scale, I don't know that it's easy to separate the legend of Pantera from the music of Pantera, particularly in light of the death of Dimebag Darrell and all that he and that event meant to heavy metal. The nostalgia of Pantera has become equally as powerful a force as "Far Beyond Driven" in the legacy of the band. Pantera, like Diamondhead (though much better,) is equally if not more important for the throngs of musicians they inspired as opposed to their actual accomplishments.
I think the important part, especially in relation to "Kill 'em All" is that all these debuts and records were the rookie season of a bunch of perennial all-stars who would all rise to the occasion and establish long, influential careers. To pull two different parallels, LeBron James and Led Zeppelin both opened a lot of eyes with their debut effort, but everyone secretly knew that both of those subjects would go on to genre-changing success. I think what 1983 captures so effectively in retrospect is the DIY nature of most of these debut releases and bands. Yes, "Kill 'em All" sounds raw, so does Megadeth's "Killing is my Business...and Business is Good!" but that's largely because, in a sort of Taoist cyclical argument, it's because they were supposed to. Certainly many of these bands, and almost all of these splinter genres would go on to be polished and primed and commercialized by some record label or another, but for this instant, music fans sick of being fed music by the mainstream producers of it, rebelled and started a whole new wave, the shock of which is still sending ripples through music at large today.
With the number of genres that were spawned by the bands we're talking about, is it feasible to suggest that 1983 was the beginning of the audience hyper-segmentation that has become so prevalent in music as a whole?
Nostalgia is a far greater force than we ever give it credit for. Metallica and Slayer haven't made a record of true importance to the scene in more than twenty years, Pantera only made two albums that were landmarks, and Mercyful Fate broke up the first time a lifetime ago, and yet the names have barely dulled as the sand from the hourglass piles atop them.
If anything, time only serves to make what was already legendary even more regarded, in an odd turn of events. The first generation lauded those albums because they were the best of the best at the time, then the next generation took is as gospel and continued praising them, until we reached the point where anyone who dares to criticize those early masterpieces is maligned as some sort of heretic (Yes, I speak from experience).
I don't say this to disparage those albums, but to stand back and ask a philosophical question; are we really loving them if we don't stop to think about why it is we consider these albums so great? I'm worried that we're close to a situation where many take it on faith that 'true fans' are supposed to revere certain records, without having so much as an explanation throw there way why it should be so. I know that I hear precious little discussion along these lines, which is a shame, because I'd like to see the metal universe as a whole engage in some deeper introspection.
To your question, though I hadn't thought about it in terms of fixing a date, 1983 does stand out as a fairly good point to mark the shift in metal from all-inclusive music of rebellion to the narrowly-defined and highly specialized world we now find. Way back when, Metallica and Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, they could all comfortably be called heavy metal, and they could share fans. Metallica was faster, and Maiden was more melodic, but they were part of the canon. It wasn't long after Slayer, Mercyful Fate, Death, and Mayhem formed that perceptions changed.
No longer could we be happy for a fast band to just be fast, they had to be thrash. A band that was slower had to be doom, a band that was occult became black metal, and so on and so forth. For all the good that came out of these bands, and the amount is immense, there is also a legacy of damage that I can't forget. By dwelling on the fractions that separated one band, and one sound, from another, metal became less and less an inclusive place for people to find solace. Emphasizing the differences is what leads religious and ethic groups down the path to hatred and genocide, and while I wouldn't be brash enough to draw any sort of equation with our little world, there are elements of that mindset I can see among fans of heavy music and the bands they love.
Worst of all, the specialization of metal is what would lead, years down the line, to its absence from most of pop culture. By dividing the fans, and then having each sound evolve away from the common ancestors, metal has limited its own gene pool, effectively stopping people who would have been fans of all heavy music from ever being able to develop into those kinds of listeners.
It's not the most uplifting thought, but it's one I think is important for us to consider as we fondly remember what used to be. The past leads to the present, so anything we don't like about the here and now has a basis back then.
Is there one band, and one album in particular, from 1983 that stands out to you, either for its importance to history, or for the impact it had on you?
M.DREW: To your first question, I think the introspection in heavy metal is often implied, and is generally considered a by-product of being a metal fan in the first place. It's kind of assumed that to be interested in such a splintered and generally publicly downtrodden genre is to have already undergone the kind of soul-searching that can land a person in that position in the first place. That may sound circular, but I think it has some validity, and speaks to the sort of bonded brotherhood that exists at the base of metal, even among fans of different splinter genres. Black metal fans and doom fans and thrash fans may not share a lot of common ground, but their Venn diagram intersects with the understanding that all have exhibited the kind of dedication and experienced the mainstream shortcomings of metal fanhood, even as they play unending games of "who can be more underground."
The root of this, to bring it back around to the metal year 1983, begins with the albums and bands we've been discussing. I think that these bands, from Slayer to Mayhem to Morbid Angel to Slayer to Queensryche to Suicidal Tendencies to Megadeth to whomever, were the first wave of heavy metal bands that allowed fans to believe not only in the music, but in an ideal.
Those who were partial to thrash were drawn to it both because of it's musical ideology and because of the bold statements it made concerning the Cold War. Even if those statements were just part of the younger generation's general pastiche of beliefs about the bloodless conflict, it was the first time since the heady days of folk music when musicians took an active stand against something they felt threatened by. Beyond that, thrash was as much an attitude about societal norms and the gaudiness of 80's society as it was anything else.
This extends to many of the splinter genres we saw begin in 1983, most notably of course black metal, where the movement took on a very tangible life (and death) of its own. Pantera (though not necessarily with "Metal Magic") made people believe in the badassery that the band projected. Even the perceived nihilism of Slayer was a kindred spirit to disenchanted youths of the early 80's, who not only were tired of fearing nuclear annihilation, but additionally had suffered through the disco era, something we don't give them nearly enough credit for surviving.
But in any event, none of the metal that had come before, even the British titans of Maiden and Priest, had allowed their fans to really recognize an idea within their music. For the first time, and the importance of this evolution can't be overstated, metal began to craft an image around itself that was more than just fast music and loud fans. However underground it may have been, metal had become a cultural force. Most notably, it had become an AMERICAN cultural force, wresting the reins of underground musical control (with the help of American punk) away from British rock and bands like the Clash.
In answer to your other question (which I could ask you in turn,) if there's one album that most sticks out to me from the time frame in question, it's probably Mercyful Fate's "Melissa," if only because it was such a blend of unlikely elements, and one of the first metal albums, even moreso than "Number of the Beast" to blend a sense of theatrics with some real down-home, dirty metal. To this day that album resonates on a lot of levels, not the least of which is its transcendent orchestration.
In the meantime, with the burgeoning efforts of Possessed, Morbid Angel, Bathory and Onslaught all beginning in this year, did we see the birth of modern death metal in 1983?
We'll pick it up here tomorrow with Part 2!