Christmas of Steel

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.

twisted-christmas

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’.

up-half_holLG

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.

kingdiamond-christmas

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.

Dio+-+We+Wish+You+a+Metal+Xmas___+And+A+Headbanging+New+Year+-+CD+ALBUM-501074

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.

SilentNightjpg

 

Blaze and Ripper’s Excellent Adventure

August 1991. The Metal God pops the clutch on his massive Harley and rolls forward into the fog shrouded darkness. Gliding the beast forward with only the roar of the crowd to guide him, he is unaware that a hydraulic stairway has only partially descended, and smashes into it face first, breaking the bridge of his nose and tumbling off the bike beneath the gigantic stage set. He lies unconscious and bleeding for three minutes before he is found. ‘Hell Bent for Leather’ is performed for the first and only time without lead vocals.

It was the dawn of the 1990s, and a difficult time for Heavy Metal; especially for Metal bands from the ’70s and ’80s trying to stay relevant. Judas Priest had never been afraid to ‘adjust’ their sound to better suit the ever-changing Metal landscape; ‘Turbo’ and ‘Painkiller’ were both concessions to prevailing trends (hair metal and thrash metal, respectively). Both records were successful, but it had been difficult for many to watch Priest, one of Heavy Metal’s most important pioneers, chasing trends rather than setting them. And now the ’90s were presenting new challenges: Metallica had abdicated their throne, and Grunge, Alternative Metal, and Nu Metal were all about to make life difficult for several iconic bands from HM’s glory days. For Rob Halford, the writing was on the wall.

Within 24 hours of bashing his face in, Halford was back home in Phoenix AZ formulating a plan. He wanted things both ways; to work a solo project for ‘three to four years’, and to then return to the band and resume his position. For the rest of Judas Priest, this was ridiculous. Sit around for 3 or 4 years doing nothing, while we wait for their singer to decide to come back? IF he decided to come back at all? No way. Once Halford’s new band Fight was announced in 1992, Judas Priest cut the cord, and the inevitable war of words began. Hey, that might be a good title for an album…

Meanwhile, Iron Maiden were weathering the early 1990s fairly well. Their stripped-down response to the Big Four, ‘No Prayer for the Dying’, hit #2 in the UK, and the album’s (awful) single ‘Bring Your Daughter… to the Slaughter’ hit #1. The follow-up album, 1992’s ‘Fear of the Dark’ also hit #1. But singer Bruce Dickinson was bored, bored, bored. A solo album and tour in 1990 hadn’t been enough to calm the singer’s restless spirit, and while working on a second solo record during the ‘Fear’ tour, Bruce decided to leave the band. The final legs of the ‘Fear’ jaunt became Bruce’s ‘farewell tour’, which wrapped with a televised performance in August of ’93. The show was broadcast live as a pay-per-view event; magician Simon Drake performed magic and illusions during breaks in Maiden’s set. Drake’s final trick: making Bruce Dickinson disappear.

The Metal God and The Air Raid Siren were gone. Halford and Dickinson’s departures left gaping holes in each of their former bands. Square in the middle of the metal-unfriendly ’90s, both bands would have to establish themselves all over again in an inhospitable landscape ruled by Soundgardens, Nirvanas and Faith No Mores; to prove themselves to a brand new generation of Metalheads raised on the Big Four, Pantera and the emerging Death Metal genre. But there was so much more at stake here than just the fate of two legendary Heavy Metal bands; the fate of Heavy Metal itself hung in the balance. Would Metal survive the ’90s without Judas Priest and Iron Maiden? Twilight of the Gods, indeed.

For a while, it appeared as if Judas Priest were honoring Halford’s request for ‘three to four years’ off. Not much was heard from the JP camp until 1996, when their new lead vocalist was announced: Ohio native Tim Owens. Dubbed ‘Ripper’ by guitarists K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton, Owens was a virtual unknown who fronted two small-time bands: Winter’s Bane and British Steel. While the former was an all-original metal band, the latter was a JP tribute. The two bands were usually booked together, with Owens fronting both. When a videotape of a British Steel performance somehow made its way to Priest, Owens shot ahead of shortlisted candidates like Ralph Scheepers (Gamma Ray) and Sebastian Bach. Four days later, Owens was in the UK auditioning for the band; after singing one song, ‘Victim of Changes’, Tipton offered him the gig.

Steve Harris wasted no time reaching out to Blaze Bayley of Wolfsbane, who had supported Maiden on the NPftD tour just a few years earlier. Bayley politely declined. Woflsbane had done three albums, an E.P. and a few singles, and were ready to re-enter the studio for album #4; both parties chalked it up to bad timing, and Harris moved on. ‘Arry and the rest of Maiden then slogged through thousands of tapes, CDs and videos sent in by hopefuls from all over the globe… and got nowhere. But by the time Bayley was to enter the studio to begin his band’s fourth album, he had changed his mind, deciding that Wolfsbane had run its course. Bayley soon found himself facing off against Doogie White (just a few years away from joining Rainbow) for the Maiden job. Bayley won.

Priest had perhaps found the one man up to the task of recreating Rob Halford’s histrionic vocal stylings. But in losing Halford, JP lost a lot more than a voice; they lost an attitude, a swagger, and a particular lyrical voice. Halford’s acting background was apparent in his delivery; he could (and regularly did) deliver ludicrous lyrics in a convincing manner, with an air of melodrama and just the right amount of camp. Tim Owens had the pipes but none of Rob Halford’s charisma. Blaze Bayley (real name: Bayley Cook) was blessed with a deep, resonant voice capable of conveying a strong sense of the dramatic. However, Bayley often sang one full octave below his predecessor, delivering Harris’ overstuffed lyrics with an oppressive air of doom and gloom. After 12 years of Bruce Dickinson, an almost super-human vocalist with a flair for the dramatic, even operatic, it’s hard to understand exactly why Steve Harris felt that Blaze Bayley’s voice was the right fit for Maiden.

The_X_Factor-Front

Iron Maiden’s tenth album, ‘The X-Factor’, hit in 1995, just two years after Bruce ‘disappeared’. It’s a difficult album. The opening song, ‘Sign of the Cross’, clocks in at over 11 minutes, and quickly sets the tone for the next 70. Every song begins with a quiet, delicately-played intro, and then plods along for far too long. The ghost of Steve Harris’ marriage hovers over this album, in both the dour, overwrought lyrics and in the music’s downbeat vibe (the album’s lone ‘fast number’ was written by Bayley/Gers). Bayley’s heavy, brooding presence prevents even the more energetic moments from ever fully taking flight; the man can sing but brings none of the spirit and spark that characterized Dickinson’s better performances. It should also be pointed out that longtime producer Martin Birch was not on board for this album… And the cover is hideous.

Judas_Priest-Jugulator

Priest’s first post-Halford album is truly awful. 1997’s ‘Jugulator’ is a train-wreck of harsh, over-processed guitars, anguished vocals, terrible lyrics, and haphazard production. Tipton and Downing wrote all of the music, and several concessions to current trends are immediately evident: down-tuned guitars, atonal guitar solos, and Death Metal-worthy titles like ‘Dead Meat’, ‘Decapitate’, Blood Stained’ and ‘Death Row’. Ugh. Tipton himself wrote all of the album’s relentlessly negative lyrics. Each song begins with a short, atmospheric intro tacked on, with creepy guitars, dialogue or sound effects, adding nothing to the proceedings. The guitars are heavy as hell, but without the wit and irony that Halford’s presence always unfailingly provided, it’s a grim, abrasive hour of music.

Iron_Maiden_-_Virtual_XI

After the much-maligned ‘The X Factor’, Iron Maiden included a new track, entitled ‘Virus’, on the 1996 compilation ‘Best of the Beast’. Dodgy sound notwithstanding, this energetic and interesting song established that Maiden had indeed awakened from their coma, and the album that followed, 1998’s ‘Virtual XI’, impressed with a lighter tone and brighter sound than its predecessor. As for the songwriting, however, chief writer Steve Harris had clearly lapsed into formula, and each song on VXI sounds remarkably like the song before it. While VXI does contain the Blaze era’s lone classic: ‘The Clansman’, the album’s first single, ‘The Angel and the Gambler’, repeats it’s chorus so many times, you’ll feel the need to check your turntable to make sure your needle isn’t stuck… even if you’re listening via mp3. The single clocks in at 6:05, edited down from the 9:56 album version. Martin Birch, where are you?

Judas_Priest-Demolition-Frontal

Priest’s second stab at establishing a post-Halford credibility was 2001’s ‘Demolition’. Again, it’s Tipton’s record, and again he demonstrates his inability to grasp just what made Priest so special. This record is a little more well-rounded than ‘Jugulator’, but also suffers from trying to be all things to all people; Nu Metal, Rap, and Industrial Metal, as well as elements of ’80s Priest all feature here, and absolutely none of it works. There is, however, a melody or two to be found here, unlike the band’s previous disaster. Imagine Judas Priest at their absolute heaviest, then imagine them pushing even harder, but without the irony; without the campy panache or the flair for the melodramatic that informed their best work.

For Heavy Metal, the Bayley/Owens era was a near-death experience. When viewed against Priest and Maiden’s previous body of work, all four of these records were colossal artistic and commercial failures, and in the battle for the survival of Heavy Metal, they did more damage than good. Without these two massive flagship franchises to help hold Metal’s fan base together, the genre continued to splinter and fragment into fractious sub-genres. Heavy Metal survived the ’90s by blowing itself to bits and continuing forward as an amalgam of separate and distinct pieces of a disparately unified whole. As solo artists, Halford and Dickinson released some decidedly un-Metal music, but each eventually returned to classic Heavy Metal with records that beat their old bands at their own game, and positioned both vocalists for their eventual (and inevitable) return. A revitalized Priest & Maiden helped establish yet another (and perhaps the most important) HM sub-genre: Legacy Metal.

Cheers to Blaze Bayley and Tim Owens for ushering two of our favorite bands through Metal’s darkest days. Coulda been worse… Sebastian Bach?? Doogie White??