Nothing cheapens the holiday season like bad Christmas music. And by ‘bad Christmas music’, I mean every Christmas song recorded after Slade’s “Merry X’mas Everybody” from 1973. Okay, ‘Father Christmas’ by the Kinks is pretty great. But let’s face it: the stuff we are forced to listen to every holiday season is 90% dreck. Metalheads looking for respite from the standard holiday fare have no shortage of options; our Heavy Metal heroes are no strangers to the Christmas canon. But is any of it good enough to serve as an effective antidote to the horror of Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’?
(Note: This blog post is a TSO-free zone. Trans-Siberian Orchestra exist only to create Christmas-themed music; this post is about firmly established HR/HM icons who have dedicated but a fraction of their ear-splitting, bone-crushing discographies to music celebrating stuff like peace on Earth, goodwill toward man, etc etc.)
If Twisted Sister were aiming for a dumb novelty record with their ‘Twisted Christmas’ album, they totally nailed it. Ten rocked-up renditions of standard yuletide classics, delivered with a simplistic, ham-fisted approach that makes every tune sound like an outtake from their ‘Stay Hungry’ album. In fact, their version of ‘Oh Come All Ye Faithful’ sounds so much like their ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ that it has to heard to be believed. The band wisely play up the similarities, applying the bass line and guitar solo from their 1984 hit with very little adjustment, and there are enough similarities in the melodies of both songs to make one wonder if ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ was indeed based on the 250-year old hymn. But that would perhaps be attributing to these SMFs too much smarts.
All of the songs on ‘Twisted Christmas’ are reworked into fist-pumping hard rock headbangers, but that doesn’t mean they have to be stupid. Alas, the TS boys render every chord from every song as a fifth chord, or what is more commonly known as a ‘power chord’. So much musical detail is lost in this translation; so many important melodic elements are missing from these boneheaded versions that poor Dee Snider often sounds like he’s having trouble finding the right note to sing, as these timeless songs he’s heard since childhood suddenly sound ‘wrong’. Check out their take on ‘The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)’. If this sounds okay to you, then you should be right at home with the rest of this dopey record. Next!
‘Halford III: Winter Songs’ is a mix of holiday classics and original Christmas-themed Halford material. At least Rob gets the music right. All of the arrangements are excellent, whether in rip-roaring metal mode or in a more traditional musical backing. This is probably due to the presence of Roy Z (Roy Ramirez), the guitarist-producer who’s alliances with Halford and Bruce Dickinson resulted in solo albums from both that were miles better than the Priest and Maiden albums released after they left. For the Christmas covers, the pair opt for familiar traditional hymns, which suit Rob’s voice better than the standard Xmas rock classics. Beyond the screechy original ‘Get Into the Spirit’, Halford sings mostly in his midrange, and the cover of Sarah Bareilles’ ‘Winter Song’ showcases Rob’s voice well, as does the original tune ‘Light of the World’.
The downside for me is that WS feels like a missed opportunity. Rob Halford, The Metal God, built his career singing over-the-top epics about godlike characters like Sinner, Exciter, Painkiller, and Starbreaker, and created a mythos made of equal parts science fiction and religion. The Nativity story would have been prime fodder for Halford’s brand of campy psuedo-religious melodrama. But on ‘Winter Song’, Halford plays it straight (sorry) and refrains from the comic book Armageddon; coming after decades of messianic visitations and apocalyptic revelations, listening to Halford sing about being late for Christmas dinner is a little dull. A little ‘Fall to your knees by the Christmas Tree please!’ would have been welcome.
Two notable singles also spring to mind: King Diamond’s ‘No Presents for Christmas’ and Spinal Tap’s ‘Christmas With the Devil’. Tap’s single came first, in 1985, in the form of a 7″ picture disc, showing a devil-horned skull wearing a Santa hat. I wish I could say the song is hilarious, but it’s not, and like most of Spinal Tap’s music, it falls apart when held to the standard of actual Metal in 1985. King Diamond’s Christmas single came the following winter. The King’s first-ever solo release, ‘No Presents for Christmas’ sounds just like Mercyful Fate, as does most of KD’s early solo stuff. The ridiculous lyrics by Kim Bendix Petersen (oops!), containing references to Donald Duck and Tom & Jerry, probably diffused a lot of the controversy that might have erupted around an avowed Satanist’s Christmas single. Nonetheless, NPFC was a brilliant way to launch a solo career, and put Roadrunner Records on the map in the US.
Two compilations are worth mentioning. ‘We Wish You a Metal Christmas (And a Headbanging New Year)’ is filled with good stuff, and features a roster of A-listers who really bring it. Lemmy, Billy Gibbons, and Dave Grohl have their way with Chuck Berry’s ‘Run Rudolph Run’, immediately followed by Alice Cooper, Billy Sheehan and Vinnie Appice turning ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ into a menacing threat. But up next is the CD’s highlight: Ronnie Dio, Tony Iommi, Simon Wright and Rudy Sarzo’s epic reading of the 16th century carol ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’. GRYMG thunders out of the speakers like classic Black Sabbath MkII, all monolithic power chords and avalanche drums, topped off with Dio’s medieval wail. RJD’s delivery of the lyric, which name-checks Satan (bonus!), transforms the centuries-old tune into a cautionary tale, and Iommi’s solo rips.
Also appearing on the collection are Geoff Tate (who’s often painfully flat as he over-sings ‘Silver Bells’), Joe Lynne Turner, Tommy Shaw, ‘Ripper’ Owens, both Kulicks, Carlos Cavazo, Steve Morse, George Lynch, and many more. If there’s a lump of coal in this stocking, it’s Scott Ian’s death metal destruction of ‘Silent Night’, with Testament’s Chuck Billy on Cookie Monster vocals. This probably sounded like fun over beers, but here it’s an ugly mess. Or maybe it’s Stephen Pearcy retching his way through ‘Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer’, which he repeatedly sings as ‘ran over’ for some unknown reason. Better than ‘runned over’, I suppose.
Released three years later, ‘Heavy Metal Christmas’ (also released as ‘A Very Metal Christmas’ and ‘Christmas with the Devil’) is a pile of junk, a bunch of tracks recorded for the Deadline label by 3rd stringers like L.A. Guns, Faster Pussycat, Gilby Clarke, Pretty Boy Floyd, Helix and… Dweezil Zappa? Paul Di’Anno and Eddie Clarke also appear. The inclusion of Jack Russell’s ‘Blue Christmas’ is so fucking offensive it borders on obscene. There’s only one decent track: Glenn Hughes’ somber ‘O Holy Night’. The mere fact that this comp is available in three different versions, with three different titles and three different covers, reeks of cash-in. Avoid.
So after wading through all of this holiday cheese–uh, cheer, what are we left with? Well, for one thing, Heavy Rock doesn’t fare any better than other genres in terms of the quality/crap ratio. Heavy Metal’s dark lyrics and imagery, and its musical expressions of power and nihilism make it largely incompatible with the messages and melodies found in most holiday-themed music. Finding a balance that works is next to impossible. I am aware of only one band that was able to strike that delicate balance perfectly: Manowar.
Yes, Manowar. Everyone’s favorite Warriors of Steel released a CD single in 2013 featuring 2 versions of ‘Silent Night’; one sung in English and one in German. And it’s actually… pretty awesome. The arrangement is excellent, and the performances, especially by vocalist Eric Adams, are impeccable. The production is flawless. In short, it’s a triumph. Musically, I mean. The packaging is another story. Metal to the core, Manowar could not resist throwing a few HM tropes into the CD’s packaging: the cover art features Santa the biker-badass, with one scantily clad babe on each arm; Bad Santa has his hand on one wench’s ass. The band photo depicts the Gods of Metal standing tall as the fires of Hell burn behind them, and the CD was produced in a limited edition of 666 copies… Even with the finest Holiday Heavy Metal, there’s fine line between Santa and Satan.