Heavy Rewind – 1987: The Year in Metal

Every once in a great while we have calendar years that see iconic releases across a range of styles. It is rare that we see this happen in just one particular style. 1987 was one such year, though, as the entire spectrum of heaviness saw iconic records drop like so many tears from the eyes of mainstream pop music stars that these albums would devour. At the time, it didn’t seem like this was any different of a year for music until fans started to take a look at their growing record collections and what would spin out from the influence of so many landmark albums.

It wasn’t so much that these were merely epic releases, which many of them were and are, but the secret to why this was such a seminal calendar year for albums lay in the fact that many of them were either at the forefront of an emerging genre or directly responsible for the creation of a specific style. There have been many years, including those immediately surrounding 1987, that proved to be instrumental to the proliferation and variance of metal, but this year was particularly strong especially when one considers we will only barely and briefly touch on the polished hard rock that nearly perfected that specific form in the release of Def Leppard’s Hysteria.

There. That’s it. Our only mention of the highly influential and innovative for its time hard rock and strip club classic.

Guns N’ Roses – Appetite for Destruction

Arguably, though, the biggest release of 1987 in any style was Guns N’ Roses “Appetite for Destruction”. The album features an iconic opening guitar lick by Slash that announced the band’s arrival to the rest of the country (and world) with a riff that excited teenagers and mortified parents. “Welcome to the Jungle” was not only a trip through Hollywood’s seedy underbelly, it was a wake up call to anyone starving for something a little harder, a little more raw, and a lot more, dare we say, confrontational to the musical establishment than anything else up to this point. That it would become entrenched in the upper echelons of the charts only spoke more strongly to these desires.

Up until this point, the band had largely been legends of the local LA scene but that note, the ensuing riff, and the maddening descent into an underworld with all of the charm of an overly warm biker bar on the outskirts of greater Los Angeles changed everything. Guns N’ Roses took all of the sinister, smirking misbehavior and attitude of Motorhead and gave it a new spin with bigger guitar sounds and a chaos that somehow was so controlled as to, in retrospect, seem quite meticulous. That even the album’s ballad, “Sweet Child O’ Mine”, boasted blistering guitar licks and a bit of snarl to the vocal delivery set it apart from the other popular “power ballads” of the time.

Other notable tracks, and really it’s hard to single any out from a consistently powerful album, include showing off the band’s punk roots on “You’re Crazy” and the undeniable kick-drum-snare combo that heralds the coming of “Paradise City”, a near perfect arena rock song if ever there was one. That the band so easily steer themselves through variations of the hard rock style made this album irresistible to the audiences of the time, still maintaining its power today. One could even make an argument that this is what Thin Lizzy and Lemmy and company wanted their bands to sound like while 5 kids who found each other in Los Angeles made it quite real on their debut album.

Thrash Metal

1987 would prove to be a vital year for thrash, as well, seeing releases from the biggest acts of the form (which we’ve covered more extensively in our taxonomy of thrash here). Anthrax released Among the Living (and the I’m the Man EP), Testament dropped The Legacy, Overkill pummeled audiences with Taking Over, Exodus delivered Pleasures of the Flesh, and Metallica gave fans the tasty morsel of their Garage Days Re-Revisited EP (their first release after Cliff Burton’s tragic death) as they were heading into the studio for what would become …And Justice for All that would put them head and shoulders above the heavy metal world. Though Megadeth and Slayer didn’t release new music in 1987, they were each supporting their own iconic releases from the previous year, Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? and Reign in Blood, respectively, on tour.

That these releases would prove ready-made springboards for these bands to jump to even greater heights, all of them proved to be entry points for new fans that would wind up gobbling up the following albums that drove the success of Metallica and the “titans” of Slayer, Anthrax, and Megadeth with Testament ever so close to joining them. But highlights from these particular albums include such classics as “Among the Living”, “Indians”, ”Caught in a Mosh”, “Over the Wall”, “Wrecking Crew”, “Seeds of Hate”, and a cover of Diamond Head’s “Helpless” made truly classic to the thrash set. These classic songs from these seminal releases are important because of what they portended for a nascent thrash scene that would become dominant in metal for small window before giving way to the next sea change in music.

King Diamond – Abigail

The year was not just about the burgeoning thrash scene or how an LA rock band would change the musical landscape. It was also about heavier music getting more popular while taking a decidedly darker turn. To wit, it would also see the release of an iconic album in the realm of nascent black metal with King Diamond’s Abigail, one of the creepiest and most spell-binding albums to come from the genre taking more traditional metal in new directions. After leaving Mercyful Fate to embark on a solo career, this sophomore effort would prove to be Diamond’s breakthrough proving he could achieve new heights beyond the supremely talented tutelage of his former band.

“The Family Ghost” and “Mansion in Darkness” propel King Diamond’s vision on this album assisted by the kind of atmospherics and imagery that we would later come to accept as staples of the black metal genre. Though the vocal stylings would change and the guitar sounds would metamorphose into something else entirely, an argument could be made that the genre is never born without this surreal and creepy tale from Denmark’s resident metal lunatic as interpreted through his supporting band. That it came on the heels of the highly respected Mercyful Fate only increases its importance to the overall metal scene. Beyond that, it’s yet another iconic release that still bears relevant, if entirely disturbing, fruit yet today.

Voivod – Killing Technology

The world of prog got shook by French-Canadian, sci-fi metal freaks Voivod with their brilliant release, Killing Technology which made artists across all of metal take notice and reconsider their own approaches to the form. This is where the band began to get weird and took a lot of pleasure in it. Piggy’s guitar became increasingly atonal while Snake’s lyrics would morph into something a little more impenetrable. The band, on this effort, were shifting away from thrash to something far, far more sinister and interesting by adding these elements that would become hallmarks of their later efforts.

“Forgotten in Space” and “Order of the Blackguards” highlight what the band would become while the title track sends us out into their sci-fi realm that few bands had truly delved deeply into in this manner before. Voivod, in this period, were the band to mention to show you had a broader taste than the average metalhead. Elements of jazz appear in their sound, particularly in Piggy’s playing, while the band continued fleshing out the technique that would help them blow minds once more on later efforts such as Dimension Hatross and Nothingface.

So many bands would be influenced by what these Canadians were doing as sort of a hate-filled answer to Rush that prog-influenced, sci-fi metal has become practically a genre unto itself and yet we are still looking for a true heir apparent to what this band laid out so many years ago.

Celtic Frost – Into the Pandemonium

Celtic Frost were another that stunned the world of most metalheads and none moreso than on their epic 1987 album, Into the Pandemonium. Tom G. Warrior’s music was always cinematic and extreme on some operational level but his motivations were his own. If Malmsteen had driven Mercyful Fate’s work leaving King Diamond with something of a blueprint for his solo work to reach maturation on Abigail, then Pandemonium is Warrior’s response to his own work, stretching and pushing beyond the boundaries of either Morbid Tales and To Mega Therion as predecessors.

It must be said right from the start, this album is odd. It is meant to be a strange and uncomfortable listen but its whole point is to challenge the artist first, the listener second. It is almost punishing in this way, just as his riffs prior to this album did likewise to audiences. The man could not be said to lack a sense of humor as was apparent by leading this monstrosity off with a snarling cover of Wall of Voodoo’s minor hit, “Mexican Radio”, with the kind of performance that maniacally grins at you from the stage as only this type of madman would.

The album only gets stranger from there. A track almost entirely made up of a drum machine, another that features strings and a French vocalist, while yet another in “I Won’t Dance” that almost makes camp out of Warrior’s darkness, aggregate over the course of an album that thumbs it’s nose at metal conventions. That a venerable act such as Celtic Frost would do this means you either are in on the joke or are supremely offended by the quips but anyone who appreciates their metal reaching for something a little more strange to downright bizarre, from time to time, owes a small debt of gratitude to this album’s aggressive shove against metal conventions.

Candlemass – Nightfall

Speaking of artful albums infused with the power of something primordial and sledgehammer-like, Candlemass unleashed Nightfall which would go on to establish the gold standard for all doom metal that arrived in its wake. A change in vocalists to Messiah Marcolin and some tweaks to their sound for the better see us arriving at the trademarks of this band as they essentially create the sub-genre of doom and all of its magnificently lumbering elements.

When we discuss the many bands who have taken up the style recently, this is the band, and the album, from which their path begins. The follow-up to Epicus Doomicus Metallicus took all of the amazing and groundbreaking elements of its predecessor and improved markedly on them. The give and take of the guitars, particularly on tracks “Well of Souls” and “At the Gallows End”, comes across as a more organic behemoth here. The vocal performances are much improved and, overall, the production highlights better what the band do well (though a re-mastered version released later does an even better job of this) which is lay waste to everything in their path.

“Dark are the Veils of Death” and “Bewitched” are also highlights on the B-side to this monstrous epic of which echoes can still be heard today on many new releases. That it stands this test of time and, as many of the other albums appearing here, continues to be vital to the evolution of, not only, this style but across all of metal shows that Candlemass’ Nightfall belongs in the pantheon of great metal releases.

Bathory – Under the Sign of the Black Mark

Bathory were a seminal band in the formation of atmospheric black metal and this was the year that saw the release of the realization of so much of the band’s early potential with Under the Sign of the Black Mark. On this album, we see Quarthon growing into his ample songwriting abilities while spanning what the band had done, could do, and what they were beginning to grow into. “Massacre” is true to the Bathory spirit up until this point whereas “Call from the Grave” spoke to what the band were going for on this particular album, but it is on the classic “Enter the Eternal Fire” where we truly get a glimpse of the master at work.

“Enter” is a track that, for black metal standards, would be called epic for both its length and its penchant for twists and turns leaving the listener gleefully wondering which end is up. A hornet’s nest of a guitar tone rules over the proceedings with an ominous underlying synth track before the rasp of Quarthon enters bringing along with him all of the evil trappings that made Bathory great. The production and sound drenched in a reverb that sounds straight from halls of some unseen level of hell itself only add to the power of this particular track.

But don’t take it from us. When none other than Fenriz from Darkthrone calls it the “quintessential black metal album” it means something. Comments like these and so many others over time cements Bathory’s Under the Sign of the Black Mark on this list.

Napalm Death – Scum

The worlds of punk and metal had been brushing up against one another for a few years by 1987 but for as aggressive as the hardcore punk scene had become and for how willing metal bands were to embrace, or at least mildly tolerate, some of punk’s trappings the cross-pollination of the two didn’t fully manifest until the next trio of albums that came out in this year.

First, there is the very invention of grindcore as we know it with the release of Napalm Death’s Scum which was in turns hailed and reviled for its abrasiveness. With its 28 songs in just over 30 minutes and the growl of vocalist, Nik Bullen (on the album’s A-side), chanting “Multinational corporations/Genocide of the starving nations” at the outset, the band announced their intentions from the jump. This was music aimed at the establishment with the kind of simple, brutal fury that had been seldom seen up to this point.

Mick Harris’ blastbeats, for the time, were as outrageous as they were powerful and were central to the spectacle that garnered the band so much attention. For that reason alone, it’s little wonder that he is the last man standing in the change in personnel between the album’s two sides. The B-side sees the entry of future metal icons, Lee Dorrian and Bill Steer, while the already brief tracks become even shorter and the grunts and growls become ever more slightly intense. This album is one that shows up influential lists everywhere, particularly in metal and punk, but is also revered in other circles for its sheer audacity and force.

Suicidal Tendencies – Join the Army

Next up is the skate-punk-thrash-on-pop-rocks out of Venice, CA on Suicidal TendenciesJoin the Army, with its raw production put together manic riffs, spitfire drumming, Mike Muir’s trademark hardcore vocal stylings with non-ironic metal shadings and hip hop rhythms, and the recently added shredding skills of Rocky George who had only just joined the Suicidal Army for this album.

The titular track is a mid-tempo chant-along that bears the guitarist’s trademark leads all over it, showing off this new dimension to the band’s pre-existing punk foundation. There are also a number of cool little tidbits involved with both the making of and the music itself such as being produced by Les Claypool of Primus fame and the video for “Possessed to Skate” being an integral period piece for the late ‘80s skateboarding scene. By far the standout track on the album, though, is “War Inside My Head” which features all of the classic SxTx elements of catchy choruses and blistering riffs.

Overall, the album features all the pieces that make for a masterpiece of the crossover period for metal which would go on to inform the band’s catalog even as they eventually would cross-pollinate and update their sound with funk. As a band, they have never been afraid to try new things and on this particular album they get most everything right that sees its still be an underground classic.

D.R.I. – Crossover

Last but certainly not least, is the band that would wind up defining this subset of heavy music with one simple word and the demonstration of the style over the course of yet another classic from ‘87: DRI’s Crossover. From the opening notes of “Five-Year Plan”, the band blast out of the gates with the kind of thrashcore crossover that merited full-credit to the band for creating this whole blend of chaos. From simple but effective, and ultimately catchy, mosh parts to blazing drums and guitars this album has everything audiences would crave, particularly on the above track, which some would argue that Slayer copped a bit of that opening riff for later use on their album Seasons in the Abyss.

The band found widespread appeal in their pre-existing punk fanbase from their previous straight-from-the-hip hardcore releases who were joined by newcomers from the metal scene who latched onto this new metal-infused style. Much like Napalm Death and the thrash bands on our list, this was a band appealing to the punks and the metalheads in equal measure. Their hardcore pedigree had been proven but here they spread their wings enough, with Spike Cassidy’s guitar work gaining more breadth, that it created an undeniable force. One such track that clearly exploited this in all phases is “Hooked”. One need look no further than that opening riff that descends into a kind of circle pit ferocity that many a band has been in search of in all of the 30 years since this album first saw the light of day.

So as we sit a little over the halfway point in a year that is enjoying an unprecedented wave of amazing work throughout heavy metal’s existing and ever-evolving genres, it is a good time to glance back at the albums that, 30 years ago, gave us so many seminal moments that new bands would be built from and which continue to inspire. Whether it was the rawness of Guns n’ Roses or the titans of thrash, these iconic metal albums of 1987 still prove to resonate today in ways that other albums have not. Indeed, this was a golden era for metal and to that we pay homage.