In “Diamonds & Rust,” Last Rites looks back at classic albums from metal’s storied history. Some of these albums were big hits, and others are overlooked gems. All of them deserve your time and attention…
The year was 1984. Atlantic Records drafted self-styled “athletic rockers” Raven from the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal into their roster for a shot at the majors. The boys had moxie – three successful heavy metal records released on the now-legendary Neat Records, two of which would later be considered cornerstones of speed metal and extremely influential on the budding thrash movement. Not a poor choice at all for the label, but sometimes college-level playing skills don’t translate to the majors. While mild success was to be found with 1985’s Stay Hard with it’s “On And On” single, it proved to be a departure from the rough edges that made the band so endearing in the first place. While perfectly serviceable as a more radio-friendly take on hard rockin’ heavy metal, that special something that made Wiped Out and All For One timeless classics seemed to be gone. 1986’s The Pack Is Back all-but solidified Raven as a band that had lost their touch. Gone were the blitzkrieg assaults of speed metal bliss, and perhaps just as notably John Gallagher’s over-the-top vocal feats.
But every good sports story has a comeback moment. Raven’s final release on Atlantic, 1987’s Life’s A Bitch plays out like an all-out shot at the pennant – the boys are back to playing by their own rules. Even the opening riff to the first track, “The Savage And The Hungry,” feels like a surge of inspiration as Raven takes the field with renewed gusto. John’s sneer is back, searing with attitude that flies completely off the rails into high-pitched wails of psychotic fury, particularly on the second track, “Pick Your Window.”
I would actually like to pause here for a moment to reflect on the utter beauty of “Pick Your Window.” Betrayal is pretty universally relatable to the human condition, and Raven hone in on the complex feelings and emotional responses garnered by such an act with the subtlety of a 12,000 pound forged steel wrecking ball to your great-aunt Edna’s china cabinet in the no-kids-allowed room with the weird smell and the plastic all over the furniture. While several methods of enemy disposal are mentioned, there is something almost poetic about just grabbing that piece of shit by the collar and chucking them out of a fortieth story window into rush hour traffic. Plus, the main riff on the chorus is just a doozy, and pairs well with the catchy gang vocals.
The power, speed, and aggression continue on the title track, and you can actually hear life grabbing John by the jewels as he belts out the “squeeeeeeze.” Fun spirited, blue collar heavy metal at it’s finest, the track plays like an anthem after a terrible day at work or to let out a bit of aggression after discovering the wrecker company that polices the parking lot to your apartment complex has found yet another stupid reason to tow your car because those fascist bastards just live to make your life hell. As is becoming par-for-the-course on Life’s A Bitch, the riffs rock infectiously into the brain, and the bass on this one plays well in the back, adding touches of flair behind the hooks.
The distinctive lead/riff quality continues through “Never Forgive” and “Iron League,” complete with choruses just as catchy as the tracks before them. Sure, there’s a formula at work here, but it’s mixed with different ingredients. While the structures don’t change much, every riff feels organic and inspired to keep the album interesting and exciting. Things do slow down a bit with “On The Wings Of An Eagle,” or at least until the intro is over. Back to pure speed, the same fun-filled energy carries an empowering spirit of triumph, the do-or-die attitude of Raven’s underrated comeback is most clearly reflected here. There’s a bit more solo showcasing on this track, and while solos have never been the highlight for the band, who play more to the strength of their licks and riff construction, they do work well in stretching the song out to be a more epic highlight to wrap up the first half of the album.
Speaking of highlights, the B-side opens with “Overload,” the high-energy burner in an album of high-energy burners. Paying tribute to the immortal words of Ian Gillan on Deep Purple’s live album Made In Japan with the rallying cry of “Everything louder than everything else,” the song just begs for further amplification on the listener’s end. Preaching escapism through maximum volume, the song should strike a chord with anyone who seeks solstice in the serenity of loud, fast, and powerful music.
Much like the A-side, the second track on the B-side hones in on a particularly distasteful type of bastard with “You’re A Liar” before kicking into the more uplifting “Fuel To The Fire,” spitting attitude into the winds of freedom and self-reliance. The riff powerhouse knocks its way through the line once more on “Only The Strong Survive,” while “Juggarnaut” lurks a little lower, getting lean and mean with the palm muting, creating an air of intimidation before Raven deliver the finishing blow on “Playing With The Razor.” This final track plays like a conclusion to the pressures of everyday life weighing on its subject – this is the ultimate breaking point, and almost literally. The song has these weird little breaks in it where Raven step a bit out of the straightforward attack they’ve maintained across the record. It breaks the song up just enough to make it feel special and draw attention without losing the energy and spirit of the rest of the songs. It does well to drive the point home and sum up the record without leaning too far out there.
With Life’s A Bitch, Raven came back like they never lost it. Chock full of the sass and speed that made Wiped Out and All For One timeless classics, Raven did what few bands in the entire history of the genre have pulled off successfully – a return to form that easily holds its own against their more classic material. Raven found footing after stumbling a bit outside the framework of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, returning to what made their fanbase so rabidly loyal in the first place – heavy metal, faster than hell and hand-delivered with a curled lip and foolhardy spirit.