Music of any kind is not just the sounds you hear. The intangibles matter. The context matters. No one will understand exactly why I love Harry Nilsson’s The Point, and I don’t expect anyone to, but the fact that it is a fun children’s tale told in singer/songwriter style is the least important thing about it, at least to me. It represents a time and place for me, and a state of mind and being. You have to be where I was to get it.
The same is true for the metal scene in the early 80’s, and the then dominant styling of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. My favorite FM radio station at the time still played The Eagles, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, and Bruce Springsteen, but almost like clockwork, at around the 50-minute mark of every hour they would sneak in something meatier. At the time it felt exciting and subversive, almost forbidden. This was where I heard my first Motörhead, Iron Maiden, Riot, and Scorpions.
Yes, friends, there was a time when to get to “Wrathchild,” you had to sit through 45 minutes of “Born to Run” and “Take it Easy.” In fact, that kind of patience dominates my life to this day. Specifically tailored music is so easy to come by now that it’s easy to forget waiting up all night to hear two or three heavy metal songs so you could talk to your buddies about them the next day. But not for me.
When local record shops started stocking NWOBHM records it was a big deal. And when you met a new kid from a different state with different record shops, and you got to compare records, it was a huge deal. And that was how I found out about Tygers of Pan Tang.
That is a mini-novel of a set up, I understand, but again, context matters. When listening to groundbreaking metal in retrospect, just asking you to hear it as a modern metal fan gives you next to nothing. So many other bands have leaped from the springboard Tygers and their peers built that the ferocity and ingenuity of these old bastards can be lost. If you are going on this journey, you have to clear your mind of the modern and try to tap into that patience I mentioned.
The first song I heard by Tygers — who I believe took their name from the warriors of Thaleb Kaarna’s island kingdom in the Michael Moorcock “Elric” series, so bonus points all to hell for that — was “Insanity,” and it remains the signature piece for this band in my mind. It’s from the Wild Cat album, the band’s debut and the one my friend Eddie owned, and I heard it for the first time sitting in his basement bedroom, fingers blistered from just having a bass players’ jam session with him. “You gotta’ hear this. This shit will blow your mind.”
I taped that record, and later I bought the band’s second album, Spellbound. Spellbound was a different kind of badass, just as important to metal history; thus I will compare and contrast these two records. I will also highly recommend them to anyone who loves metal paleontology — or just riffs — as much as I do.
FIRST: WILD CAT (1980)
This is a dirty, earnest record: working class, alcohol-drenched, and almost euphorically unfocused. This is four guys throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. A lot of the standard NWOBHM tropes are present, but they are not formulaic here. They are young, pissed, defiant, and glorious.
Vocalist Jess Cox is the epitome of “not giving a fuck.” He has the Paul Di’Anno rasp and the Phil Mogg swagger; he misses almost half of the notes he tries for, and he does it with gusto. It is a mixed blessing — sometimes it sounds a little amateurish. But sometimes it sounds positively perfect, and it definitely lends a “lad’s night out” aspect to the album’s best tracks.
But what really makes this record is the interplay between guitarist Rob Weir and bassist Rocky Laws. Weir’s riffs and effects combine with Laws’ immaculate sense of timing to pull the compositions up from just UFO knock-offs into something new and exciting. This is the NWOBHM-ness that made the scene so important. Drummer Brian Dick rounds everything out with the kind of brash, artsy-minded but metal-dedicated style that gave the band a fresh feel.
Particular tracks of interest include “Slave to Freedom”, with its combination of UFO boogie and Judas Priest start-stop riffing alongside the stellar lead work of Weir, and all on top of an occasionally Maiden-esque shuffle-gallop rhythm. “Fireclown” starts with a very NWOBHM bass riff and ends up a solid tale of the deranged, while “Suzie Smiled” has a great leathery riff and Ramones-tough aesthetic that gets the blood racing.
But the final track really cements this record as a must-own: “Insanity” is a forward looking monster without much precedent. It is a dark, twisted, and altogether complete piece of heavy metal. It shares the NWOBHM gallop with many of its peers, but the basic riff construction is laid upon a whiplash-inducing start-stop hook that truly leaves the listener feeling like the floor has suddenly disappeared beneath them. The forlorn, barely cogent vocals lend the song such a perfect eeriness – it’s almost like Cox was born just for this one song.
The chorus is built on a tick-tock bass riff with heavy curtains of synth-accompanied guitar chords that are, in a word, fucking perfect for the mood. (OK, two words.) Just exactly where it should, the band drops into a vertigo of slow, lullabye-ish phrasing, amping up to a double-timed take on the main rhythm and a simple but massively effective guitar solo before crashing back into the verses. What this song does is take you on the trip that the title promises — it is insanity. Everything about it works. It’s a dark metal masterpiece on the same level as “Stargazer”, “Heaven and Hell”, “Hallowed Be Thy Name” and “Diary of a Madman.”
SECOND: SPELLBOUND (1981)
Spellbound is an interestingly different experience. Instead of inventing their sounds, this is a band living the world their sounds helped create. The two most obvious differences between Wild Cat and Spellbound were, firstly, replacement vocalist Jon Deverill, with a style more typical of what we tend to think of as NWOBHM. More vibrato, more range, and better pitch – all true. But less distinct at the same time. Still, a great voice and presence.
And secondly, of course, the unreal guitar playing of a young John Sykes, who would go on to play on some of the greatest tracks from Thin Lizzy and Whitesnake (and also some of the worst tracks of Whitesnake, lest we forget). The combination of Weir and Sykes really makes this record as special as it is, even as the songs themselves feel more formulaic than those on Wild Cat in retrospect. But that is hindsight – at the time of release, this was as cutting edge as just about anything else going.
Standout tracks on Spellbound are “Gangland,” a fast-paced rocker with blistering leads and a head-banging riff. “Minotaur/Hellbound” is a NWOBHM classic for good reason: It has the speed, control, and spirit of the best of the genre, with a Fast Eddie-ish riff and soaring chorus. “Blackjack” has one of the best early metal riff-runs you will hear, and it keeps the basic power of the song intact without losing anything to histrionics.
As this is a retrospective, it seems relevant to discuss which record has held up better in the long run. At this point, for myself, there is little doubt that Spellbound was a more consistent record, with technically improved vocal performances and stunning solos. But it also sounds far more standard and even a little cliche — it’s not fair because this is a record that helped invent the cliches, but the fact remains we have heard a lot of bands do these types of songs over the years. Compared to the hit-and-miss ingenuity of Wild Cat, the excitement of Spellbound suffers – a bit. And while Spellbound’s songs are mainly top notch NWOBHM songs, the album drags slightly from the inclusion of proto-power ballads like “Mirror”. Lastly, of course, there is simply nothing on Spellbound that comes close to “Insanity” in composition or execution.
To sum up: You extreme archeology students out there should own both these albums. They’re often forgotten in the shadows of Maiden, Saxon, Angelwitch and even Def Leppard, but Tygers of Pan Tang left some priceless artifacts early in their career. If you put a gun to my head I would suggest Wild Cat, mainly for the one song – though, seriously, what a song – but you honestly can’t go wrong with both.
Now if you will excuse me, Eddie and I have to take his Pinto to the F.O.E. and sneak into a kegger. Don’t wait up.
[Editor’s note: Both albums were out of print for ages, but both are now available as part of a five-disc package called The MCA Years that is available relatively inexpensively. Also included in that set are subsequent Tygers albums Crazy Nights and The Cage, which are pretty good and mostly terrible, in that order. For the die-hards, The MCA Years also has a bonus disc of BBC live recordings from the Wild Cat and Spellbound eras, and that disc is interesting and fun, but not essential.]