Ah, the good old days! When we were all shining golden gods and the name of metal struck fear into the hearts of parents everywhere! Not only is this post about those good ol’ days, but we’re also looking at the specific part in them where metal really started taking off in the international circuit. Metallica had already released three albums, including Master of Puppets, and were huge, touring the world in support of their just-released album. Iron Maiden were arguably at the height of their career, packing stadiums left and right. Satanic Panic was alive and well but had somewhat receded, perhaps in preparation for the embrace of “alternative” culture in the ’90s. The stage was set and the cards were stacked in favor of metal’s explosion from an already considerable following into the world’s cultural eyes.
But several things still needed to happen in order to turn the metal of yore into the metal of slightly-less-yore; there were still several classics to be released. Going over the list below, you can see how huge a role 1988 played as a chrysalis for what would become metal in the next two decades (and perhaps more, to this very day). Among the butterflies which emerged from this chrysalis are seminal albums like Death‘s Leprosy (which came to define much of the death metal scene), Candlemass‘s Ancient Dreams (which solidified the band’s legendary status), Napalm Death‘s From Enslavement to Obliteration (an album that captures the band’s essence for many), and many, many more. It was a year in which new and old(ish) styles of metal dug deep into what made them tick and brought forth albums which proved definitive in the future of the genre.
And so, right before we kick off our End of Year content for 2018 (there’s so much planned, guys, we can’t wait), we’re taking a look thirty years into the past. Remember that time? When I was one year old but apparently things were so much better, when the riffs roamed wild and free, untouched by mainstream’s hand? That wasn’t the case, of course, but isn’t it nice to dream about it? Regardless of the narrative, we’d like to stick on the period, it’s safe to say that it produced some fine music. So come with us down nostalgia’s crooked, sepia-colored lane and lets us ruminate on some of the best and most classic albums that metal’s ever offered us. If nothing else, it’ll be a fun ride.
Candlemass – Ancient Dreams
Ancient Dreams is the third album from Swedish doom metal band Candlemass, and with it, the band followed up two instant, genre-defining classics with a third. Much like Epicus Doomicus Metallicus and Nightfall before it, Ancient Dreams hinges on the interplay of Mats Björkman’s plodding, massive riffs, Lars Johansson’s soaring leads, and vocalist “Messiah” Marcolins epic, operatic vocal stylings. It’s the latter which truly set Candlemass apart from their peers and the scene, as Messiah’s voice is something unique and special, sounding as though it was simply made for this type of epic doom metal.
Opening track Mirror, Mirror truly sets the tone for the rest of the album, with Mats’ epic riffs and Marcolin’s operatic falsettos drawing the listener into the band’s fantastic world. That the album also has a Black Sabbath medley on it should let you know what you’re in for simply by its inclusion, but Candlemass took the typical Sabbath inspired stylings of the classic doom genre and injected a sense of epic, high fantasy adventure into them, almost single-handedly creating the epic doom genre, and Ancient Dreams is arguably their creative peak, as well, (though previous album Nightfall could be said to be slightly better due to the band having more time to iron out some rough spots).
It’s almost unheard of for a band to put out three certifiable classic albums in a row, much less at the very start of their careers, but that’s exactly what Candlemass did, and Ancient Dreams is a near perfect capstone both for the band and the genre as a whole as it existed near the end of the eighties. Had the band had the time in the studio they wanted in order to polish the album more, it would have been undeniably their best work. As it stands, it’s “merely” one of the best albums of 1988, a year that was inarguably packed with amazing, historically significant music.
Play it loud, play it slow.
Death – Leprosy
After making the landmark death metal record Scream Bloody Gore, Death had a monumental task ahead of them. How do they continue to establish this brand new sound after such a huge introduction? Band leader Chuck Schuldiner had a great idea: let’s just do what we were doing before but with higher production qualities. Brilliantly done. It may be that Scream is the essential Death album, but it could very well be argued that you wouldn’t have the explosion of death metal without Leprosy.
Having had one go-around in a high-quality studio, Death decided to take better advantage of all the studio toys. The entire album is mixed so much better than their debut. Everything sounds just a little bit cleaner and clearer. While the guitars on Scream sound great and establish the sound culture of death metal, there is an unmistakable lo-fi quality to it. You have to hear Death in studio clarity to get all of the goodies out of it, and Leprosy certainly scratches that itch.
Just look at any track on this album to hear where modern death metal came from. First, Schuldiner’s guitar tone is the standard for the genre with its huge distorted guitars. The title track “Leprosy” establishes the perfect intro: gigantic guitars mixed on par with bass make everything big and mean. Then comes in the distorted vocals which no one was really doing at the time. It also really sounds like how you might hear the band live with everything mixed equally together. It makes sense once you realize death metal is best experienced in a live setting.
It’s too bad Leprosy doesn’t get the fair shake it deserves in context. Certainly, it has gotten some minor accolades over the years. Records like this one often don’t get a fair shake immediately but over time they get what they truly deserve. Any track on here is a classic for the genre and a big splash in the late 80s at the beginning of the genre. Further listening will show that this is indeed a must listen for anyone being introduced to death metal.
Iron Maiden – Seventh Son of a Seventh Son
Fucking Iron Maiden, right? Every time I write about them for the blog (not often enough to be honest), I remember how much I still love the first metal band I followed as a fan. A friend of mine even recently found our ticket stubs from when we saw them in Paris, alongside Dream Theater and Within Temptation (amazing show, by the way, check out the setlist). And now, even as I write these words, I know that the next two weeks will be filled with me going back and listening to all my favorite Iron Maiden jams.
And you know what? Seventh Son of a Seventh Son is high up there. It’s not exactly an underrated album but you won’t find it at the top of too many Iron Maiden lists. It’ll definitely be in the top half but very rarely have I seen it in the Top 3 (it’s usually Number of the Beast, Powerslave and then an interchangeable third place). I guess I can see why that is; Seventh Son is a more melodic and expansive than other albums Maiden have made, before and after. “Infinite Dreams” is a slow burner, drawing more on 60’s progressive rock influences than Maiden usually do, alongside those cheesy guitar tones (which I love). So too the latter “The Prophecy”, a moody and introspective track.
But I honestly think that’s why I love the album so much; the contrast between these “darker” ideas and the faster, more trademark tracks like opening “Moonchild” and closing “Only the Good Die Young” (one of the best Iron Maiden tracks ever) is what makes this album special. It’s a relief from how some of their other albums can drag on, repeating idea after structure after idea. There’s more contrast on Seventh Son and while many might not want that in an Iron Maiden album, I’m more of a fan of their progressive and melodic tendencies than their ferocious guitar tracks (today, of course. When I was a kid, I’d die for those blistering solos and triple attack riffs).
It also has “The Evil That Men Do”, one of my all-time favorite tracks of anything, basically. It’s such an evocative and cleverly constructed tale that I don’t think I’ve ever skipped it when it came on randomly. And now that I think on it, I rarely skip any of these tracks; they just have so much character, even within the context of Maiden’s long-running and excellent backtrack. Simply put, there’s a sort of air surrounding Seventh Son which makes it intriguing and beguiling, perhaps more so than any Maiden album until that point and since. It’s not their best or their most famous but it’s another example of why Maiden remain one of the most accomplished bands operating in metal.
King’s X – Out Of The Silent Planet
This could be labeled as “the year of things I guess I should care about but definitely don’t.” Outside of …And Justice For All, Ultramega OK and South of Heaven there are few releases that have moved me in any way whatsoever. There are the ones I’ve tried and failed to like (beyond the amazing “Teenage Riot,” Daydream Nation sounds like a bunch of sloppy noodling to me; So Far, So Good… So What! is the one Megadeth record from this period that I could never get into, and I also could never forgive it for having an exclamation point instead of a question mark at the end of its title; and goddamnit Nick Cave, I’ve attempted to appreciate you more times than you can possibly understand, but Tender Prey was never gonna be the one either way). There are the bands that I would eventually like, but not this year (sorry Dinosaur, Jr., Screaming Trees, KMFDM and My Bloody Valentine). There are bands I just never got into for whatever reason (Suicidal Tendencies, Jesus and Mary Chain, Iron Maiden, Butthole Surfers, Death, Carcass – I’m sure you’re all fine, maybe next lifetime). Then there are all the beloved bands that I passionately despise (I’m looking at you Sting, U2 and Val Halen). So, it was a pretty wretched year from where I stand.
However, I still wanted to find something to laud from this dark time in the musical arts. I could have leaned into G ‘n R Lies but frankly, it doesn’t feel totally right discussing the virtues of an album that features “One In A Million,” despite the fact that – musically – it’s actually a really good track. But…ya know, lyrics are part of a song and that isn’t one of Axl’s finest moments. As I was about to give up, a familiar name emerged from the void and caught my eye – a band that I unequivocally adored as a pre-teen and teenager. That band was King’s X and the album was their debut Out Of The Silent Planet. I was a bit unsure at first. I’d still spin Dogman now honestly, that’s a great record and one of the first albums I was ever obsessed with back in early junior high. But as much as I devoured their first decade of releases, I did have some recollections of the earlier material being a bit cheesy, which is why I eventually moved away from them as I entered my college years and beyond. But I figured “what the hell?” and decided to give it a fresh spin. I’ll be damned if I’m not glad I did.
Let me start by giving credit where credit is due. One of the things I liked and respected about King’s X is that they’ve always been exactly what they set out to be. No band sounds like King’s X, nor do they seem to be attempting to ape the ideas of previous artists. The guitar and bass tones are incredibly distinct and beyond that, King’s X has been a band – the same three guys at that – for nearly 40 years. That’s an insane accomplishment. They haven’t released a record in ten years, but they still tour and actually have a new album slated for 2019. In this entire decades-long run it appears they’ve made few if any compromises to who they are. You have to respect that.
As far as Out Of The Silent Planet is concerned, it seems I’m in some decent critical company. I didn’t realize this until I started doing some research but apparently, the album was ranked #1 on Kerrang’s Best of 1988 list. It’s not an unreasonable claim. While Slayer had decent success following up their career-defining Reign In Blood and Metallica for whatever dumb symbolic reason decided it was appropriate to release an album with no discernible bass track, King’s X came right out of the gate with their signature sound already intact. A booming rhythm section anchored by Doug Pinnick and Jerry Gaskill balanced with Ty Tabor’s gnarly riffs and ripping solos that were impressive without being showy. Pinnick’s bellowing, bluesy vocals mesh perfectly with Tabor and Gaskill’s voices, which could be labeled backing vocals but really position more as secondary leads. Say what you will about the occasional cheese (despite being a very well-arranged pop song, “Goldilox” – which I recall being my favorite track from the record when I was 10 – is pretty tough to stomach today) and the fact that they were sometimes labeled as a Christian band (a distinction they sort of talked around during their first ten years before outright rejecting it in the late ‘90s) – this is actually still a very listenable record.
To my surprise, I ended up running through the album twice upon revisiting it for this article. From the chunky opener “In The New Age” to the slick, infectious “Power of Love,” from the killer single “King” to the powerful chorus of “What Is This?,” Out Of The Silent Planet is simply stacked with hooks and riffs and nasty solos. It is also the announcement of a singular vision from three top-level artists who never let their egos override the purpose they set out to accomplish. King’s X is a band that has kind of existed in their own world for decades – they never achieved mainstream credibility (and therefore were never tainted by that realm), but they were hugely successful at carving out a niche that worked for them and their fans, making them one of the most rabidly followed bands that “no one cares about” from the last 30 years.
Metallica – …And Justice for All
It’s not hard to argue that the most important album on this list is …And Justice For All. It was somewhat of a make-or-break album for Metallica. After the passing of famous bassist Cliff Burton, they had to make a statement about how they would proceed as a band. Not just that, but they also had to follow after Master of Puppets, which, even then, was clearly slated to be one of the most albums of metal. The pressure must have been crushing. But they countered with the angriest, most progressive and rawest album of their career. Played-out jokes about the bass production aside, AJFA ended up being a fantastic, definitive album.
Metallica have always flirted with technical and progressive overtones, but AJFA was the moment when they fully embraced the techno-thrash movement of the times, invoking their peers like Voivod, Deathrow and Coroner. Of course, they repackaged this sound with a more mainstream flavor, but the strength of the best Metallica material has always been in its balance of straightforward and intricate ideas. Traces of this album’s sound can be heard all over the metal scene, but the most obvious one would be the early albums of Meshuggah, which eventually lead to the creation of a whole subgenre. Despite its massive influence, nothing really comes close to the exact tone of AJFA. The “unique” production definitely contributes to this vibe, but it’s also the writing. This was the point in Metallica’s career when they really nailed their trademark harmonized lead sound. The production having so much room for the leads to expand plays a part in this.
It’s not just the leads though, AJFA was also the high point for James’s singing. It’s in a sweet spot where he’s grown through three albums and learned how to use his voice well, but he’s still young and hungry enough to have a lot of energy and power. Lars is at his best as well, with his style evoking Mike Portnoy from Dream Theater in the more progressive passages. The bass…well, unfortunately, due to Lars’s insistence, it’s not audible as we all know. This was the beginning of perhaps the most well-documented petty squabble in metal: the band’s poor treatment of Jason Newsted. There’s not much to be said here, other than noting that there are versions of the album mixed by fans using Jason’ bass tracks to enhance the sound, and they’re arguably better ways to listen to it.
All this time I’ve spent talking about the iconic sound of the album, but beyond that, the album is also chock full of timeless classics. “Blackened” is a longtime staple and perhaps the band’s best song. The title track is where they really flex their progressive chops and really materialize the formula that they came to use throughout their career for their long songs. “Eye of the Beholder” has that darker quality that highlights the stark tone of the album. Then we have “One”, one of the most well-known metal songs, both for its intro, the verses, and the famous double bass section that came to inspire many thrash riffs to come. Also, it’s yet another example of a good mix of ballad, progression and aggression, which encapsulates this whole album. “Harvester of Sorrow” has that iconic riff that hearkens back to Ride the Lightning. I could go on about each song, but I’ll stop reiterating what everyone already knows, because AJFA is one of the most important albums of the genre’s history. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t pay special attention to “Dyers Eve”, which is hands down the heaviest song the band have ever written.
In the end, AJFA is the most “metal” Metallica have ever been, and they’ve done so without sacrificing the progressive bent they really focused on in Master. To be able to put out such a monster of an album after the passing of a key member is a testament to how much of a force they were back then. Purists often argue that this was the last great Metallica album, and while I wouldn’t agree, I can’t say I don’t see where that argument is coming from. The iconic artwork feels oddly appropriate for the Spartan sound of the album. Even if we were to concede the point about AJFA being their last great album, it’s a hell of an album to go out with. While it’s definitely an album with glaring flaws, it’s still incredible, with some of the most inspired, memorable and powerful songwriting of the entire genre.
My Bloody Valentine – Isn’t Anything
Look, I’m not armed with any leftfield hot takes about Isn’t Anything. Of My Bloody Valentine’s two major records (sorry MBV), Loveless is inarguably the band’s crowning achievement, so much so that I’d actually be interested in seeing an argument to the contrary. Yet, what marks a landmark discography is its ability to offer hidden gems that are obscured by the shadow of its one consensus classic. Though Loveless is the clear entry point for anyone looking to dive into MBV’s discography or shoegaze in general, Isn’t Anything certainly deserves its place in any conversation about the band. Their proper full-length debut paved their way for Loveless to make the mark it has on the musical landscape.
Overall, Isn’t Anything is like a radiant burst of sunlight absorbed through a rainbow pane glass window, whereas Loveless is like having the ability to see the color spectrum within that beam of light. The point here is that the foundation of what made Loveless such an instant classic is very much on display throughout the entirety of Isn’t Anything. On full display throughout “Soft as Snow (But Warm Inside)” is that distorted, sheet of sound approach that made Kevin Shields such an eminent guitarist and composer. Panning waves of guitar noise alternate between suffocation and vanishment, somehow managing to beautifully cacophonous. On the very next track, MBV flex their signature penchant for eclectic songwriting with the gorgeous “Lose My Breath.” The song truly feels like an unbridled embrace of the void with breathless devotion, with pensive acoustic chords, angelic vocals and looming ambiance blending into shoegaze’s signature dreamy haze. The band’s ability to shift between the moods of shoegaze, noise pop and dream pop is easily the greatest strength employed on Isn’t Anything. Both “Sueisfine” and “Several Girls Galore” toward the end of the album exude the bounce and energy of a post-punk or jangle pop track, albeit with shoegaze’s clouded veneer.
Above all, this is the shining quality of Isn’t Anything – the ability for listeners to hear a future classic in the making with a closer attention to detail. Loveless is so effortless to lose yourself in, with endless hooks, riffs and guitar wizardry. But as with any classic, sometimes those moments blend into the experience of listening to the record as a classic in a vacuum instead of as an actual album within the context of the band’s career. On Isn’t Anything, we instead get a clear picture of MBV’s core artistic principles and ideals. Everything on the album feels rawer and more accessible, as if you’re meeting the band on their own playing field rather than solely basking in what they’ve created. It’s that unique quality that clearly separates Isn’t Anything in an important way. Classics don’t come out of nowhere; they’re always preceded by other albums, EPs or, at the very least, demos (even if they never see official release). Not only does Isn’t Anything offer a glimpse behind the curtain of what MBV would become, it’s also a crucial moment in the history of shoegaze in its own right.
Napalm Death – From Enslavement to Obliteration
Predating my entrance into the world by a couple of years, From Enslavement to Obliteration is for many the first “true” Napalm Death record. The first to feature Shane Embury (the only surviving member of this lineup), FETO drastically improved on the previous year’s Scum, the songwriting and production increasing in quality in the very short time between records. There’s a joke to be made about this record taking nearly a week to record, considering it runs for less than half an hour and is composed of about 95% blast beats and caveman vocals, but I’m not here to make it. Bands like Napalm Death don’t live at the top of the game for over thirty years on the back of laughs.
Embury’s entrance into the band brought with it a heavily distorted bass that would forever stamp its mark on the face of grindcore, the opening moments of “Lucid Fairytale” letting the light shine on the murky, miserable low-end just long enough to confirm how utterly filthy Embury’s strings could sound. Without asking the members themselves, it’s impossible to know who wrote exactly which parts of my favourite tracks, but I’m gonna say everyone involved probably had a fair go at shoving in twisted death metal riffs at a time when punk was turning into poetry (fuck you Morrissey). The double-fisted impact of “Display To Me” into the title track is still just as devastating in 2018 as 1988. The cavernous production on Lee Dorian’s low vocals (and Mick Harris’ screeches from behind his absolutely battered drum kit) are an industry standard to this day, highlighting just how important this record is from “pure” grind perspective.
Lyrically, the band would continue to aim their grind cannons at materialism, capitalism, and scumbag humans. Scum set the bar for these attacks on the mainstream, but FETO really hit the nail on the head. With a sledgehammer. Napalm Death took no prisoners back then and it’s an attitude that has done them well through their entire discography, and existence. As devastating and groundbreaking as the music on this record continues to sound, the messages behind these blistering outbursts of rage towards the apathetic make just as much sense today. We need grind bands now more than ever and we have industrial England in the ‘80s to thank for most of them.
What I’d give to be one of the first crowd members hearing this material live, watching Harris’ face contort while he hit every blast beat with as much ferocity as he could humanly muster, Steer trem picking every dirty riff while Embury abused the low strings of his guitar. I’ve seen Napalm Death live recently and it was a great time, but being present for this lineup performing this material would have been something else entirely. It kinda sounds like shit in parts, and most fans won’t be able to tell “Social Sterility” and “Obstinate Direction” apart, but that was never the point or purpose of FETO. It was one of the first truly groundbreaking grind records that actually created an atmosphere of virile, vitriolic anger towards the right, the man, and the awful state of affairs around the band at the time. If it ain’t broke, blast beat the fuck out of it.
Poison – Open Up and Say… Ahh!
Poison have a reputation, among those who reject the genre, for being one of the premier examples of the abominable nature of hair metal. The band are pure pop fluff, devoid of the respectable rock n’ roll heritage of supposedly more credible acts like Mötley Crüe and Def Leppard, and often thrown in among third-rate whipping boys like Ratt or Warrant. Yet Poison have something that the more easily dismissed hair metal bands simply don’t have: an album like Open Up and Say… Ahh!
Sure, Open Up and Say… Ahh! Is a cheesy pop record, but it’s also a cheesy pop record without a single bad track on it. If you’re picking up what Poison are throwing down, then there’s little to dislike throughout the record. Even it’s weaker tracks: “Good Love”, “You’re Mama Don’t Dance” (originally by [Kenny] Loggins and Messina); are perfectly serviceable pop-rock fare that put many of their contemporaries’ singles to shame, let alone their album cuts. Though the albums either side of this second effort: 1986’s Look What the Cat Dragged In and 1990’s Flesh & Blood; are remembered only for a single outstanding moment (“Talk Dirty To Me” and “Unskinny Bop”, respectively) Sure, Open Up and Say… Ahh! Is stacked front to back with genre classics.
From the razor-edged opening riff of “Love on the Rocks” and the definitive ‘80s party-rock anthem that is “Nothing but a Good Time”, to the stadium rock anthem “Fallen Angel” and power ballad par excellence that is “Every Rose Has its Thorn”; Open Up and Say… Ahh! does not let up. I have a tough time believing anyone who says they don’t enjoy anything on this album on a visceral level. You can claim they were simply the best of a bad bunch. However, while other bands may have delivered arguably greater records overall, few if any produced an effort as bullet-proof as Open Up and Say… Ahh! (Whitesnake’s 1987, is really the only other contender in terms of consistency).
There’s a reason Poison stood out from the hair metal pack. Although they’re now largely remembered for all the wrong reasons, the band’s unabashed pop sensibilities and pushing of the genre’s already ridiculous tropes to their logical conclusions elevated them above the competition at the time. Even if they weren’t able to replicate its success on subsequent records, Poison remain inextricably embedded within hard rock culture, more than three decades since their heyday, and Open Up and Say… Ahh! is all the reason needed to defend their position.
Slayer – South of Heaven
How do you follow up an instant classic? It’s a tough question that bands have had to tackle for years. Slayer put out an instant classic with 1986’s Reign in Blood, essentially establishing a blueprint for the evolution of death metal and how to make a commercially viable grind record (on a few key tracks anyway). The production quality is some of the highest for 80s underground metal, thanks in no small part to the music production genius of Rick Rubin. So what’s a band to do? Slayer thought, “Hey, what if we basically do that again but more so?” Enter South of Heaven.
This album presents just as much as the rest of the Slayer discography. They are continuing to develop their signature style. Unlike Reign, the hardcore influences are put in the backseat to encourage more of a thrash metal sound on the darker side of things. According to band interviews at the time, they also didn’t want to try and match what they did on Reign in other ways, choosing to go intentionally slower on a number of songs. Some of the riffs are just as complex as they were on previous albums (see “Live Undead), but when played at a slower pace they sound altogether different.
South of Heaven is smack dab in the middle of the strongest part of Slayer’s career. They were possibly the darkest and most evil thing you could listen to easily, and they were making objectively great records that are some of the strongest outings in the genre both now and at the time. While their generally dark and violent sound had been well established by 1988, their experimentation with songwriting proved they were one of the strongest groups putting out records. South of Heaven stands the test of time as well as, if not better than, the best of records.
Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation
There’s a good reason why Daydream Nation is the quintessential Sonic Youth album. No slight to their earlier material (it’s by no means throwaway), but up until this point their noisier approach would more-or-less get in the way of their songwriting, crutching on the esoteric as they threw “fuck you’s” to just every about every musical trend out there. Similarly, Daydream Nation forges a path of discovery, albeit through more palatable, conventional means. There’s still the wild, unruly punk rock nature present on their 1988 offering, it just sounds enhanced… refined… perfected.
Their post-punk/art rock with pop sensibilities helps to develop the impossible situations that make the record an instant suggestion when speaking about the decade as a whole – and beyond. To this day, Daydream Nation is basically requisite for anyone exploring the annals of post-punk or noise rock, or just the history of rock at large. At times they’re aggressively patient, with melodies that accumulate slowly like raindrops on a window, eventually (and expectedly) letting loose to race away with erratic fervor. Yet, it’s not so much that these ass-kicking moments are surprising, but more so that they’re bolstered by the serene and dreamy beauty of jangled chords, ghostly yet memorable melodies, and wanderlusting structures that develop conflict within the listener as even the most laid-back moments carry a seething sense of urgency and anxiety. Still, the noisy freakouts haven’t been given up for anything. Instead, they’re folded into the ebb and flow of the record’s longer tracks (check “The Sprawl,” “Total Trash” or “B) Hyperstation”) when they aren’t the driving force (dig “Hey Joni,” “Eric’s Trip,” or “Silver Rocket”).
To me, the contradictory and off-balance nature of Daydream Nation is really what’s so intriguing. It’s as though the record encourages listeners to bask in the glory of intertwining guitars as much as it relishes jerking them into the tumultuous dissonance. It makes a point of confusing what’s heavy or intense or catchy or contemplative to the point where you’re forced as a listener to submit to the gravity of each track and simply let it guide you. How often can a group so convincingly (more like automatically, instantaneously) dissolve a listener’s desire to compartmentalize and to instead surrender to each and every moment, to exist so much in the present? It’d be one thing if this were the case for a few songs or maybe just a single side of this (barely) double album, but it carries throughout the entire fucking record. With every listen, I’m deciding upon a new favorite track though I’ve heard this thing thousands of times. It’s precisely what everyone wants to happen with their records, and this is one of the few that definitely has “it.”
Whether it’s the timelessly heavy tracks like “‘Cross the Breeze” or “Rain King,” there’s little doubt that ripples are still being felt to this day. For me, it’s hard to imagine bands as disparate as Boris, Kylesa, Krallice, or Couch Slut existing without the influence of a record like Daydream Nation. The instinctually attractive eruptions, the obfuscating noise transforming into luscious passages and back again, and the subversively clever counterpoints make for a deep listening experience that transcends genre. The noise and disarray from their prior work hadn’t been abandoned on this album, but reconfigured, reformulated, and used to better effect. Even after thousands of listens, “The Sprawl” still manages to instill a sense of wonder, introspection, and (comfort of) confusion in its closing moments. The dramatic throes in “‘Cross the Breeze” still make me want to crack a few vertebrae. There are simply not many records that evoke this kind of intense, reflexive response, much less after it becomes familiar.
Performance-wise, Steve Shelley’s tireless drumming is brisk, regimented, and powerful. I’d be convinced he’s a lizard person who regenerates limbs after each track if I hadn’t seen him in the flesh myself. (Seriously though, this dude is one of the best ever.) His work across Daydream Nation is exemplary: pummelling, thrashing, restrained and measured as you could ever hope it could be at any given moment, underscoring the three-headed beast of guitars and voices that is Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore, and Lee Ranaldo – in perfect proportion. Shelley pushes tempos to the brink of mania and down to the surreal fringes of quiet dissolution. Vocally, they all bring a unique feel and lyrical approach. Whether it’s Gordon’s smoky croons and feminist jabs, Moore’s distorted experiential musings, or Ranaldo’s stream-of-conscious mysticism, it’s not just that there are so many layers to delve into, but that there are so many different kinds of layers to peel back and explore. Coupled with the entangled guitars and walls of noise, the rewards are buried, but not inaccessible. When it’s as exciting and beguiling to uncover these elements on the album, it’s no wonder it’s every bit as highly regarded now as it was back then – as one of the best albums, period.
Soundgarden – Ultramega OK
In 1988, grunge wasn’t a thing yet. The Melvins had released Glue Porch Treatments just one year ago, Nirvana wouldn’t release music for another year or so, the chimerical creature that married punk and metal was still hardcore. Black Flag complicated that with the second side of My War and the entirety of Slip It In. Gregg Ginn’s experimental side and his love of bands like King Crimson and Led Zeppelin started to show. There’s little doubt that Soundgarden took a cue from this when crafting their debut.
Already possessing a widely-admired duo of EPs (Fopp/Screaming Life), Ultramega OK (their first full-length) blended Cornell’s protean voice and heavy psych with the Melvin’s nascent sludge and Black Flag’s deviant hardcore. Opening track “Flower” pretty much epitomizes the entirety of the record. Psychedelic drones leading to furious drumming and drop-D (or C) riffage and that inimitable voice spiraling in and out of the riffs. Kim Thayil’s guitar playing could be deft and subtle or relentlessly aggressive or weird (compare the intro to “Flower” with the plodding, doomy, proto-sludge of “Beyond the Wheel” or the propulsive menace of “Nazi Driver”). Matt Cameron’s drumming was at turns sinewy and groovy and Bonham-esque thunder. “All Your Lies,” “Circle of Power,” and “Mood for Trouble” would have you think Cameron was a supremely talented rock drummer but the knotty, odd-time riff in “He Didn’t” and Cameron’s treatment of it quickly stake his claim to being one of the great, inventive drummers of the modern era.
So what makes this debut record one of the best records of 1988? It’s prophetic. The marriage of heavy psych, Black Flag, and the Melvins foreshadows so much of what is to come: Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Eyehategod, Obliteration, Sunn O)))—which is why, when people mention Zeppelin in the same breath as Soundgarden I both nod and go “eh.” Yes, you have a talismanic tenor singer and dark and brooding guitarist. But the tape experiments, the shift in tone and style, and the droning guitars nestled in the background are all so much weirder than Zeppelin’s largely mainstream appeal. I think of Soundgarden, and this album in particular, as part of the tradition of bands like Sir Lord Baltimore, Leaf Hound and Captain Beyond, because those bands straddle the development of punk and metal more than Zeppelin, and so more accurately reflect Soundgarden’s genre-bending ambitions and their impressive execution of a syncretic presentation of the heaviest and darkest trends in psych, metal, and punk.
Testament – The New Order
The opinion that Testament should be part of the Big Four (or, at least, a “Big Five”) is pretty much par for the course at this point. However, if you ever needed proof of just why the supposedly-B-tier act are so revered within thrash circles (and beyond) then you need to look no further than 1988’s The New Order.
The bay area outfit’s second full-length is as tight a thrash offering as you could ask for. Its ten-song tracklist is packed from front to back with classics such as “Disciples of the Watch”, “Into the Pit”, the title track and many more which still remain cornerstones of the band’s setlist to this day. It arrived just a smidgeon too late to truly play into the burgeoning thrash narrative and has since instead established itself as more of a cult classic than an essential entry in the metal canon. Yet, The New Order has more than what it takes to go head-to-ominous-disembodied-head with all but the absolute very best of what the thrash metal genre has to offer and come out clearly on top. It continues to constitute a high-point in an otherwise remarkable catalog (with only really 1999’s The Gathering challenging it for supremacy within the band’s discography) and remains at the very pinnacle among overlooked thrash metal classics.
The album is also the band’s first with their definitive frontman Chuck Billy; replacing Steve “Zetro” Souza, who would go on to join Exodus; and who also has a strong claim to being the best of the classic thrash metal singers—if only because he’s the only one of them who might accurately be described as an actual singer. Billy would go on to flex his melodic muscles more on later records like The Ritual (1992) and Souls of Black (1990), although there’s more than a few hints of the more diverse direction his vocals would take on tracks like “Trial by Fire” and the remarkably fitting cover of Aerosmith’s “Nobody’s Fault”. The piercing wail that opens “The Preacher” remains a highlight of Billy’s vocal output to date, and his superb delivery of “Into the Pit” is so iconic that we ourselves have, not one, but two, columns currently named in its honour.
With The New Order Testament proved they had what it took to play in the big leagues, and no other band of their ilk has made a more convincing argument for wider recognition, before or since.