1983 - The Year That Forged Metal - Part 2


CHRIS:

For me, the most important album to come out of 1983 is Dio's "Holy Diver", although not for the reason you might think. Like many who missed out on the early days of Dio's career, "Rainbow In The Dark" was the first time I heard the little man with the big voice. Through the cheesy keyboard line and horrible music video, there was something about Ronnie's voice that stuck out immediately. Here was the first singer I had heard in a heavier band who was a great singer, who didn't feel like he had to climb into the stratosphere to prove his worth. The rest of the album is classic as well, especially "Don't Talk To Strangers", one of the handful of greatest songs Ronnie ever sang.

But "Holy Diver" itself wasn't the reason the album is so important to me. It's fantastic, but what it did was serve as an introduction to the other music Ronnie had been a part of. Without "Holy Diver", I may never have heard his albums with Rainbow and Black Sabbath, which are among the greatest hard rock and heavy metal ever produced. When I think of what a hard rock band should be, my blueprint is taken directly from Rainbow's "Rising" and "Long Live Rock 'N' Roll". And when I'm asked to pick my favorite heavy metal albums, Black Sabbath's "Heaven And Hell" is always vying for the top spot. "Holy Diver" led me to these albums that I love, and I'm not sure I would be as encouraged to keep listening to so much new music if I didn't believe that the next "Rising" or "Heaven And Hell" could still be coming down the pike. I'm a fan of heavy music in large part because of Ronnie, and that's all a result of "Holy Diver".

To pivot without any pretense of a segue, 1983 is absolutely the birth of death metal. With the forming of Death, Morbid Angel, and Possessed, we have in place the foundation from which all death metal would spawn. It would take an additional year or two before the influence was felt, but it was the initial demos these bands made that took us on a different path. Sure, bands like Venom and Slayer were stretching the boundaries of how extreme a conventional band could get, but they still colored within the lines, so to speak. These first wave death metal bands rewrote the rules of heavy music. They were the first to completely abandon some of the basic components we took for granted were necessary for music to be music.

We can argue as to the wisdom of taking this direction, especially after seeing thirty years of evolution moving us so far it's hard to believe where the modern music's roots come from, but those early death metal bands hit on a very important balance that is a big reason why all the first wave bands of all the sub-genres are usually regarded with the highest praise. It's not just because they were first, although there is a degree to which that's true, it's because they were still anchored enough to the traditional metal sound that they could appeal to more than the most hardcore of fans.

Death may have been as heavy as anything we could have imagined back when they debuted, but once the shock wore off, you could break down the music and see that it was still mostly traditional metal, just with everything cranked up well past eleven. Morbid Angel wasn't obsessed with finding the lowest tunings and most inhuman growl possible, they were writing songs in the same way everyone else did, just filtered through an aesthetic that was supposed to rub the more conservative fans the wrong way.

In some ways, I think a lot of the blame for where all of metal has gone is rooted in an unexpected source: Yngwie Malmsteen. His band Alcatrazz also debuted in 1983, and he has, for better or worse, changed the expectations for metal musicians. His technical virtuosity and awe-inspiring speed were unlike anything the electric guitar had ever seen, and once players heard him, they wanted to play like him, and slowly but surely we started to see metal become more and more interested in showing technical skill through their songs. It's to the point where each form of metal has it's own 'technical' variant, and a common complaint about them all is that the players are more interested in showing off what they can do with a guitar than they are with writing a song someone might actually want to listen to.

So while 1983 was the birth of so much good for heavy metal, it was also responsible for some of it's biggest problems. A cynic could say that the birth of modern heavy metal was also the beginning of it's death.

But I'm more interested in asking what band, album, or trend from the time is most overrated?


JEFF:
Sorry I'm late to the party guys.

My knowledge of Metal as a whole is far less extensive than either of you gentlemen. I can't exactly comment on whether 1983 witnessed the birth of modern death metal and I think you have both brought up some utterly brilliant points. That being said, here are a few of my observations so I can at least earn my participation ribbon.

I agree 1983 stands out as a point where metal started splitting out into the narrowly defined sub-categories of today. Although I was born in 1983, I explored a lot of hard rock and metal throughout my early years, which included everything from Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath to Metallica, Soundgarden and Nirvana. For me, 1983 really marked the point when certain bands started doing things I couldn't really appreciate. I loved what Metallica was doing, although “Kill ‘Em All” is more of a legacy album for me, but Anthrax could never get me as excited. Megadeth had some great material, but Slayer wasn't really my thing. Before 1983, however, metal was just slightly heavier classic rock. The movie "Heavy Metal" may have come out in 1981, but sometime in 1983 around the release of Quiet Riot's "Metal Health," Heavy Metal really started becoming Heavy Metal.

Once any style of music becomes a recognized genre of its own, as opposed to being lumped in with a much larger genre, change becomes inevitable. The opportunity for a groundbreaking, game-changing record does not present itself often and 1983 was the year when numerous new bands attempted to seize the opportunity to do so for metal. I would argue that no one truly succeeded in 1983, except maybe Dio with "Holy Diver," but much like an apple falling on Newton's head, this was the year many of those groundbreaking ideas began.

I completely agree with the nostalgia argument, especially when considering 1983. Although the albums of 1983 may not be the timeless classics that future years would unveil, I imagine a lot of future great metal bands can point to an album from 1983 as the reason they started playing music. It wasn't as good in 1983 as it became just a few years later, but it was new and exciting.


M. DREW:
Chris, I'm going with Queensryche and Fates Warning as being most overrated. But that's just me being snarky and cynical and not liking prog that much. So there's that.

Something Jeff said caught my eye, and I hadn't thought about it until just now. He mentioned that 1983 was a showcase for bands attempting to vault into the ranks of fame through their music, that each band had reached for and seized an opportunity to make their first statement in that year. That got me thinking, was '83 one of the last years when that was possible? Back in 1983, the classifications of genre were much less important, it was all about who you could get the ear of, how talented you were and the statement you wanted to make. A&R people weren't out there looking for the next "speed metal" or "prog" thing, they were just searching for the next thing, maybe if we're being generous the next "metal" thing. Even so, these bands that we're talking about cut their teeth in a broader, but strangely more accessible marketplace. Each of these artists, regardless of their niche appeal in hindsight, made the metal market a meritocracy by just plain being better than everyone else (although, before someone says it, I realize that Pantera in '83 was not the same as Pantera in '93.) The only other time we really saw this happen was later in the decade, when Guns 'n' Roses, Jane's Addiction and The Red Hot Chili Peppers all sort of cohesively represented the Los Angeles rock scene without really being similar to each other.

If you had a series of bands now that all released fantastic (or at least promising) debuts in the same year, would it even work? I realize that many of the artists we've been discussing were standard bearers for the Bay Area Metal Scene, but that's "most" and not "all." Would it even be possible to cement a wave of artists, particularly if they weren't all from the same scene or city? We've seen the boiling point of the Montreal metal scene in the past three years, but none of those bands have really taken over mainstream attention like this wave of artists did in the early '80s. Even grunge, what some might call the last great movement of the rock era, was tied to a geographic location (Seattle.) Was 1983 the last stand for a wide open metal market of diversified interest?

As for what Chris was saying, the swipe at Yngwie Malmsteen (which I wholeheartedly support,) brought me to another point. 1983, as you discussed with Alcatrazz but was also a product of so many others, raised the bar technically and made heavy metal the domain of the virtuoso. With the exception of Eric Johnson, almost every modern soloist guitar player, from Buckethead to Steve Vai to Joe Satriani and a hundred others, have some base in heavy metal dogma. This is deep-seated within the beginnings of thrash, where Kirk Hammett and the combination of Hanneman and King (plus Gary Holt, though Exodus is not as germane to the 1983 conversation) took over the guitar playing universe in one fell swoop. Sure, you had Dimebag Darrell and riff meisters like John Christ, but they both had their absolute heyday following the advent of thrash. Mix in the list of capable drummers, and suddenly heavy metal had supplanted rock and roll as the king of musical talent. In the wake of Led Zeppelin's cessation and the previous end of Cream, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton had left the title hanging, a void which it turned out Eddie Van Halen (and to a lesser extent, Angus Young) couldn't fill alone. Some of this is no doubt due to the fervor with which metal fans tout their heroes, a fever pitch not often matched by the fans of other genres (hence Van Halen was not unilaterally crowned.) The thrash wave of 1983 saw the first crossroads of mainstream heavy metal and virtuoso musicianship. (I suppose Tony Iommi can make that claim as well, but Black Sabbath wasn't well received until later in their career, and even at that, he was a man alone in terms of the revolutionary style he was pioneering, so it was tough for him to make a statement as a sort of musical island.)

It goes even a little farther than that; Metallica was one of the first bands (including AC/DC) who recognized that a rhythm guitarist who was accomplished was a potential focal point for a band. This extended to Slayer who revolutionized dual-leading guitars, much more so than Tipton and Downing did for Judas Priest. Without that influence, would we have eventually witnessed the dawn of bands like Firewind and for God's sake, Dragonforce? Even Children of Bodom's Alexi Laiho is part of the continued effort to ensure that the high water mark for guitar playing runs through heavy metal.

Regardless of Yngwie's attitude, and all the negatives he may have brought to the stereotypes of the genre, combining his effort with Hammett, King, Hanneman and the others ultimately has meant that in any serious, knowledgeable discussion of the greatest living musicians, particularly guitarists, the debate is really only between two very disparate groups; metal and jazz. That puts the genre in heady company and has got to count for something.

Speaking of Dio, have you ever heard the Ronnie and the Red Caps' song "An Angel is Missing"? I'm pretty sure you can find it on Youtube. It's wild to hear Ronnie Dio in 1959 singing a pop love song, but his voice is unmistakable and surprisingly smooth in that song. If you haven't heard it, check it.


CHRIS:

I'll agree with you on Queensryche being terribly overrated. Even aside from the fact that Geoff Tate has a tone I'm not much of a fan of, everything I've ever heard of Queensryche has been underwhelming. Because they put on an air about being 'thinking man's' metal, they seem to have gotten a pass on the fact that the music they made never exhibited any of the best qualities we look for in the music we listen to. "Operation: Mindcrime" might be a classic, but I doubt many people can name a single song Queensryche ever did, aside from "Silent Lucidity". I want to say that Pantera is the most overrated thing associated with 1983, but I feel it would be intellectually dishonest to tie in what happened a decade later, no matter how much I feel Pantera is largely responsible for destroying heavy metal in the mainstream. That will be a topic for another time.

1983 wasn't the last year a band could try to vault themselves to stardom with their music, but it was the beginning of the end. Clearly, it would take another year or two before death metal would get into full swing, there's the aforementioned Pantera reinvention, and progressive metal had yet to capture anyone's attention by this point. When Dream Theater released "Images & Words", it caused a similar, but much smaller, explosion on the scene (although not with this resident prog guy). Simply by virtue of their being other bands to be compared to, it limited the opportunities new bands would have to make a strong first impression. These bands we've been talking about had the advantage of being peerless, in one sense of the word if not both, which is such a massive head start it's hard to judge the music they made on its own merits.

No, there will likely never be another wave of metal the likes of which we've seen. We're too fractured a community, and there are simply too many bands out there anymore for any one, or small group, to gain traction and set a trend. Metalcore would be the closest thing we've seen since the glory days, as Killswitch Engage spun off as many clones as any other band I can recall. But for all the music derived from that formula, almost none of it has stuck. Only Killswitch made it into the mainstream, and only they have any sort of relevance beyond the hardcore metalcore fans today. So while I think there can be bands and albums that inspire followers, the life cycle of music is too short right now for any of them to construct careers and last as long as the originators. People still flock to see the old guard long past their primes. Who's going to want to watch Shadows Fall when they're members of the AARP?

You miss one aspect of guitar playing; the blues. Metal has become the home of virtuoso players if you read the guitar magazines, but there are still massively talented players who specialize in updating the blues. Someone like Joe Bonamassa doesn't show off his skill with the same gusto as your typical metal player, but he is every bit the guitarist. And depending on how you want to define 'modern', Stevie Ray Vaughn's legend shouldn't be ignored. I do, however, find it amusing that you bring Hanneman and King into a discussion of increasing musicality, because the two of them, while inventive players who created their own sound, are laughed at by more serious musicians. The better player to bring up from the time period would be Dave Mustaine, who in addition to helping give birth to thrash, rewrote the book on rhythm guitar in heavy metal. For all the bands that play complex music, a debt is owed to Mustaine for his early approach to the instrument.

The issue, as I see it, is that metal has always been boastful beyond its own good. We think of these players as being the best in the world because they market themselves that way. Players in other genres don't spend as much time talking about their technique, writing columns and giving interviews explaining why what they do is so amazing. It reminds me of when Dark Angel released "Time Does Not Heal", complete with a sticker boasting of "246 riffs" on the album. Right there, the assumption that trumping up the number of riffs instead of if they were any good, is the reason metal guitar is revered. These guys go out of their way to show off their skill. Ritchie Blackmore was as talented as anyone who's ever picked up a guitar, but he also wrote the most iconic four-note riff in the history of rock. I can't say I've ever heard blues, jazz, or classical musicians talk about their own abilities in the same way as metal players. Yngwie's arrival made everyone's priorities change.

I would be interested in hearing more about how Hanneman and King did more for dual-lead guitars than Thin Lizzy, Judas Priest, or Iron Maiden. I'm struggling to see how that could be possible.

I've heard a lot of the early stuff Dio did. The material with the Red Caps is interesting to hear, as an illustration of the range he could display. It's hard to think of many of metal's preeminent singers being able to do much beyond metal. I much prefer Elf, however, who were actually a pretty good band. The style isn't exactly my cup of tea, but I can see why Blackmore took them under his wing and made them (more or less) the first iteration of Rainbow. "Never More" is a gorgeous song that I'm sure plenty of people who love Ronnie have never heard.

Come Back Tomorrow for Part 3!

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