I heard the song “Winning Man” on the radio, on 99 FM back when 99 FM played a lot of cool music along with the incredibly not cool music of Fleetwood Mac (post P. Greene, mind), Steely Dan, The Eagles and Bob Seger. I mean a shit fuck ton of Bob Seger. They also played lots of B-sides, track sevens and the odd combo— ZZ-Top used to get two-fers all the time. You could count on 99 FM to play all the classic rock songs before they were classic rock, and all the eclectic rock songs that were coming down the pike.
I heard “Winning Man” on a Saturday afternoon. I feel like it was winter time, and I was reading Stephen King as I normally was in my early teens. The radio guy said “Krokus”, which because I was in my early teens I assumed was spelled “Croak Us”, and the caustic combo of shunked E notes and harmonics started up a fantastic little heavy metal journey. The vocals were a bit Bon Scott and a bit Ian Gillan, the pace was slow then fast, the chorus was hefty as hell and the whole thing was just dark and catchy.
I heard it a couple more times over the next week and decided to spend my shitty little allowance on the album Hardware from whence it shunked. I was let down pretty mightily. Understand, I was not actually a metalhead yet. I was still kind of figuring out what I really wanted to hear, and unlike today where you can absolutely hear what you love any time you choose, I was always at the mercy of a radio or a friend’s record collection or what have you. And I was very poor. Records were hard to come by as far as owning was concerned. If I bought a record, I wanted it to be different. I wanted it to satisfy. Period.
It’s not that Hardware was a really bad record, but it was nothing like the record “Winning Man” promised. It was, at best, an average UFO/Scorpions coattail effort. Had I been able to listen to more metal when I wanted to, I might have even liked it. But as it was, aside from the one song, and maybe “Celebration,” it was a huge letdown. It was more, though: It was a fucking betrayal. How could a band write such a cool song and then not write more? How could they sucker me into buying such a meh record? Fuck them!
Well, no. Fuck me. I mean, you can see where I was coming from, but really I had not looked for any reviews, or called the station and asked them to play another cut. I just decided, based on one data point, to go spend two month’s allowance on a record. I was an idiot.
But it set up a dynamic between myself and music, a dynamic that lead to me writing reviews here at Last Rites, in fact. I became a pretty tough critic. I became a rock encyclopedia, not so much because I wanted to write about it, but because if a review compared a band to another band, I had to fucking know what that other band sounded like. I had to understand analogies and metaphors and inferences. I had to be a fucking fantastic reader. Not because I wanted to be, but because I was not going to get fucked over by a single song ever again. And if I loved a band, it was because I trusted them. They had proven to me they were worth trusting. I took that shit seriously.
I think the first time a reliable band really broke my heart was Judas Priest’s Turbo. Defenders of the Faith was one of my most played albums of 1984, and I loved the somewhat murkier tone Priest had decided to showcase. It felt heavier to me even than Screaming for Vengeance. I would have called them one of my top five favorite bands at that point, with Maiden, Saxon, Fastway, and Sabbath. Between Defenders and Turbo, music in my neck of the woods had gotten a lot heavier. I was introduced to Metallica, Anthrax, Slayer and various other thrash acts. Considering Judas Priest was one of the original fast metal bands, I had truly expected Turbo to come charging from behind and overtake these upstarts with all the fury Priest could muster.
Hah, no. I got synth guitars and MTV outfits with the same lame-assed crowd shots of mostly cotton candy-haired women and men that I got in a Mötley Crüe or Ratt video. It was so bad. All of it. Music was getting heavier, faster, angrier, and here were the champs essentially shitting on the fans. Even at the show—which yes, of course, I went to see—the crowd was not a Judas Priest crowd. Or, rather, it was about half a Priest crowd. When they played “Parental Guidance,” half the place blew up. When they played “Victim of Changes,” the other half—my half—blew up. And got stared at. We were headbanging and air-guitaring, see, and that shit did not go over with the cotton candy crowd, I guess. And Priest themselves seemed completely out of place. Like the fancy stage show and dayglo outfits were as uncomfortable to them as they were to my half of the crowd.
It was a lesson. I could see on that stage that my heroes had decided to go for the money. And they were not that kind of band. They had tried it, it had kind of worked, but they had to have noticed that the crowd was split in two, and they had to feel like that split meant something to them as artists. As kids who grew up feeling pushed outside the hippy bullshit culture until they heard Blue Cheer and Black Sabbath and realized that someone was actually talking to them in their own voices, they must have sensed our pushback and taken it seriously. Turbo was not revisited on the next album, although they were still struggling with that image a bit. But Painkiller set things aright. Priest got it.
Priest was an object lesson. Metallica was something else. Metallica was not just a band trying to cash in on a trend. The Black Album—which I will not refer to by that name again because it makes it sound somehow related to the Beatles’ White Album, and Metallica doesn’t fucking deserve that relationship anymore—was fucking garbage. In retrospect, moreso. Not just because the music was slow. I was OK with that. Not just because the exciting riffs were missing. That can happen. Not just because they tried a ballad. Not just because they went from youthful but brash and introspective lyrics to shit like, “Don’t Tread On Me” (I will fucking tread on you, bitch)—all those were forgivable because there were “Gods That Failed” and “Miserys” and “Sad But Trues.” They still had something that made them Metallica.
Again, I realized that I was no longer a fan at the show. The show was god-awful. One of the greatest live shows I had seen was Metallica’s “And Justice…” tour. My head would not come off my chest for three days after. It was a long show, but it was packed with great songs and a tight band. It even took some of the hurt away from missing Cliff.
So I was hoping for the best with the Metallica album tour. Then I heard there was no opening act.
See, opening acts are something of a sticking point for anyone who ever tried playing in a band. One of your biggest dreams was to open for a hero. And also, many opening acts had brought me new favorite bands over the years: Saxon, Fastway, Quiet Riot, Helix… OK, Helix were not a favorite, but the point is that it was a way for people to get to see and hear new exciting acts, AND it added value to a fairly expensive night out.
But here was Metallica, a band who’s very super stardom had come about at least in part from being an opening act for Ozzy, eschewing the whole idea. So I was half annoyed going in. Instead, we got a twenty minute video stream documentary about Metallica. If you are not saying “what a bunch of fucking punk-assed egomaniacs,” get the fuck off my internet.
What followed was what I can only think of as an Anti-Metallica show. They played all the obvious songs, and they did a medley of the fan faves—a fucking MEDLEY—which managed to lose every cool thing about the songs in question. They did crowd work. They did not one, but TWO goddamned drum solos. By two goddamned weak drummers. “Dude, you know what would be awesome? What if Lars and James had, like, a drum battle that went on and on and on and on…and then went on some more? Fuckin KILLER, right!?” My heart tells me that whoever came up with that idea would have been shredded in place by Cliff Burton, had he lived to hear it suggested.
By about thirty minutes in, I sat down. By about an hour-and-a-half, I was wishing I hadn’t even attended. I was trying like crazy over the next year to convince myself I was the problem. But I wasn’t. Metallica were sell-outs. It was just that simple. And where Priest at least learned their lesson, Metallica has gone on to become a parody of everything they had claimed to love when I fell for them all those years ago.
What’s the point here?
I came late to Pig Destroyer. I came around Phantom Limb, and had really only absorbed their material between that and Book Burner. So, I am not an original fan, as such. As with another now-standard fave, Opeth’s Blackwater Park, the first record I heard and really let sink in is still my favorite, so Phantom Limb and Book Burner remain tied for my favorites. But again as with Opeth, going back and discovering the albums that made them Metal Gods was a joy, and I get why everyone lauds whichever one they laud most. What I may not get is the rabid devotion to the band’s initial output. I love said output, but I like the slightly more mature version of their output a little more.
What truly mystifies me, though, is the idea that the latest album, Head Cage, is a bad record. It’s fucking not. Is it maybe somewhat less than the Prowler or Phantom records? Yes, I can agree to that. Is it as good as Book Burner? In some ways no, in some yes.
Is it a Turbo or a Metallica, though? Not even fucking close. Those are shitty records. They have moments, but they mostly have long stretches of cashing in. They are truly disappointing recordings of bands that have lost the plot. Neither is it a Hardware, in which you are drawn to it with a song’s promise of a metal feast only to be handed microwaved tin-can leftovers.
So what IS it then? Why do some fans seem put off by this record? Is it the inclusion of a bassist, finally? No; if anything that heightens the band’s dynamics—though they do need to work with the idea of a bass player a little more, so maybe there is something there after all. Some minor echo of other bands who have always had bassists showing up in the new sound of the band that had always made it work as a duo. If so, though, that is a trifle.
Have they slowed down? Not really. They have been adding more chugging to their sound, but it was always there. Is it missing the furious lyricism? I don’t think so. I am not a big metal lyric guy, but the disturbing imagery and tongue-in-cheek-in-grinder sense of humor still seems present.
Maybe it is just this: we fans are getting over the sound. We have fond memories that cause us to overlook this in the other albums, but we have no heartstrings connected to the new material, and frankly we just don’t want to hear it anymore. It happens. A lot. And we justify our growing lack of interest by using the language of criticism. “It’s just not as [insert favorite overused critical term] as [insert record we loved ten years ago].”
Which brings me to Iron Maiden.
No one loved Maiden more than I did. I don’t think Maiden loved Maiden more than I did. From Killers to Seventh Son, Maiden were the world beaters. Even their shitty songs like “Quest for Fire” were worth fighting over. But Seventh Son was… lacking to me. And as I went over it in my head, I realized that Somewhere in Time was not really popping up in my cassette player all that much. But Powerslave was. Number of the Beast was. All the import 12″s I killed myself finding were.
When No Prayer for the Dying came out I grabbed it, but I barely listened. I still loved Maiden in my heart, but… this record was silly. Boring. Lame. Objectively, it was not the best Maiden album, but it was really not as bad as I felt like it was. It was maybe on par with a lot of Piece of Mind, but without “Revelations” or “Still Life.” Just “Flights of Icarus” and “Where Eagles Dares.” Middlin’ but catchy, for Maiden. But I was just not having it. So I claimed they changed, and went about my deathing, thrashing, and grunging.
I knew guys who were frothy about No Prayer, but few of them had even heard Killers. None of them had hunted down the “I Got The Fire” or “Cross-Eyed Mary” B-sides. They got the bug right around “Wasted Years.” So No Prayer was still new and exciting. And over time I came around to a lot of it. Throw it on and I will grin and bang my head. But it will never be Powerslave, not by a long shot.
I think Head Cage is a better album than No Prayer was. But I also think the early fans have a point. It’s not Terrifyer. My point is that, while it is not the best Pig Destroyer album, it is not this giant let down some folks are suggesting.
All I’m really trying to say here is maybe, as fans, we need to step back and ask if the band is leaving us or we are leaving them. If they are letting us down or we are just not there anymore to be let down. We are somewhere else, indulging in a little past-worship and mistaking that for someone else’s failure. Because say what you will, if you think Head Cage is as big a let down as Turbo was, you are in the wrong fucking fan base.